Kristen Nielson Donnelley

New South Asian Feminisms: Paradoxes and Possibilities. Srila Roy, editor. New York: Zed Books, 2012.


Full disclosure: I am not an expert on South Asian feminisms and so I approach this work with a bit of a novice fascination. I have studied religious movements in India and am conversant on feminisms in general, so I was intrigued to read this collection by Roy. I am happy to report it is a worthy addition to any feminist’s bookshelf, especially those interested in global intersections.

Roy has collected eight thorough essays here with discussions ranging from sex workers in India to political feminism in Bangladesh. Roy identifies four themes in the book: South Asian feminisms, institutionalized feminist politics, violence against women and the generational paradigm emerging within the region. These are not organizing forces, instead the themes are woven throughout each of the eight essays. One is left with the idea of interconnectivity – you cannot understand one of these issues without understanding the others. In this way, the eight essays serve as illustrative case studies toward the themes.

South Asian feminisms are tied into the ways of nation making in the individual states. Distinct to the process in South Asia is the fact that women were aligned with the emerging culture. The presence of women was the embodiment of the difference between their authentic cultural identities and the West (p5). This is a unifying factor across the region. Important to the contemporary conversation though is the intersection between this idea and socioeconomic class. The “woman” held up as the cultural definer was a middle-class housewife. Women who fall outside that category were ignored by the nation builders and it is the consequence of that reality that feminists are fighting today. This is why feminism must extend beyond an idea of ‘gender equality’ that is so strongly advocated for in the West.

As for institutionalized feminist politics, the theme is tied with the idea of NGOs. The politicization of women and the mobilization of them through NGOs, especially through microlending firms in Bangladesh, has changed the shape of feminism in South Asia. Women have often been forced to surrender their autonomy – both cultural and personal – to the multi-national NGOs and their neo-liberal values. Attention should be paid strongly to this theme as it implicates many well-meaning Western feminists as part of the current problematic situations.

Violence against women is probably the most recognizable reality to outsiders to South Asian feminism. The point here is to reinforce that reality, especially through discussion of honor/shame cultures and purity myths. The intersection between culture, feminism and religion adds greatly to this discussion and is treated especially well by Svati P. Shah in the first essay.

The generational paradigm aspect was the most intriguing to me as a Western-based scholar. In her introduction, Roy contrasts the Western ‘wave’ metaphor for the history of feminism to the generational paradigm in South Asia. Instead of large spaces of time between sections of movements, the time span is shorter. Younger women – which is admittedly not defined – are generally products of professionalized NGOs while older women are generally grassroots workers who defined feminism for themselves without Western influence. Again, this is an important theme for Western-based feminists to pay attention to. Are we willing to let the women in South Asia define feminism for themselves and to culturally adapt it as is appropriate or shall we demand they bend to our definition for participation in the global feminist movements?

There are several takeaways from this work for those of us based in the UK/EU environments. First and foremost this is a helpful reminder that feminisms exist outside of the Western hemisphere and look different in those places. It is also a reminder that women are on the ground in those places as thoughtful scholars who do not need outsiders to guide them as much as they may need outside resources to help support them. There are several calls throughout this work for U.S. based scholars (to whom this work is arguably directed) to call attention to the nuances of the movement in this part of the world.

For readers of this blog and members of the FWSA, I contend this work’s call to us is especially important. The eight essay, entitled “Feminism in the shadow of multi-faithism: implications for South Asian women in the UK” by Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Pragna Patel, reminds readers that the UK is becoming an increasingly fractured cultural nation. As South Asian cultures continue to take their place in the new tapestry, the problems facing women in the home countries will potentially continue to face them in the UK. As activists and scholars, we would do well to listen to those who are conversant in this conversation already.

As stated above, this book is highly recommended for anyone interested in intersections of feminist scholarship. It is well edited and cohesive and appropriate for upper-level undergraduate students and graduate students as well as non-academic based activists and scholars. Due to its narrow scope, however, this book will not interest everyone and that is acknowledged.

Kristen Nielsen Donnelly (MSW, M.Div) is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. Her current research is looking at the role of language in gender formation within Northern Irish Protestantism. She is also strongly interested in the intersection between gender and religion in socioreligious contexts throughout the world, but specifically in the Bible Belt region of America and in post-conflict N.I, South Africa and Rwanda. Kristen can be reached by email at