INDIGENOUS OR ELITE FEMINISM FOR WOMEN IN INDIA?
by Subuhi Jiwani
(Documentary, 94 mins, English with some Hindi subtitles, Dir. Paromita
Kanchan Gawre, Bombay's only woman taxi driver, vocalizes how she
negotiates the conflicted space of being a woman in a man's profession.
Meena Menon speaks of the strength she derives from leading a labor union
consisting mostly of men, how this role disproves the notion that feminists
single-mindedly concern themselves with issues affecting women. Satyarani
Chaddha, the co-founder of an abused women's organization in Old Faridabad
(just outside of Delhi), struggles with forgiving herself for arranging her
daughter's marriage--a marriage that resulted in her daughter being burned
alive in a dowry dispute. And "Fearless," a faceless, ostensibly fictional
character who narrates Paromita Vohra's film documentary Unlimited Girls
asks: "How do we make sense of love and anger, doubt and confusion, the
personal and the political, in this enterprise of pushing the boundaries,
of being un-limited--the enterprise we call feminism?"
Unlimited Girls explores women's conceptions of feminism in contemporary
urban India. Produced by a Sakshi, a Delhi-based violence intervention
group, the film seeks to engage youth, especially those disconnected from
the political process. It toured the US from October through December 2003,
but screened mostly at Asian and South Asian Studies departments. Its only
New York screening was at the November monthly meeting of the South Asian
Women's Creative Collective (SAWCC), at the Asian American Writers
Workshop. Ironically, this sole metro area screening was only seen by a
small group of South Asian women.
Vohra adopts conversation as a medium to investigate how women exercise
their agency: how they fight domestic and sexual violence, how they
challenge gender roles and biases, and how--like Fearless--they deal with
the ambivalence surrounding labels such as "feminist." The filmmaker takes
us to the site of Shakti Shalini Women's Center, an organization in Old
Faridabad that works to end domestic violence through community and legal
intervention. She interviews Satyarani Chaddha and Shahjahan Begum, two
women whose daughters were killed because their husbands and in-laws were
not satisfied with the dowry given to them at the time of marriage.
Satyarani Chaddha informs us of the loopholes in the legal system, which
she fought for 21 years before her daughter's husband was convicted and
sentenced to seven years--only to be granted bail by a High Court two
months later. We are presented with an indigenous feminism of sorts, a
feminism informed less by theory and more by the lived experience of the
violation of one's rights as a woman.
Vohra takes us into a Bombay taxi where we hear from Kanchan Gawre, who
challenges traditional gender roles through her work. Gawre informs us that
she doesn't feel like a woman when she is working, and still believes that
a woman's primary responsibility is still located in the home. Fearless
asks: "In the movie of our lives, do women always have to play a double
The distinction between the fictionalized Fearless and Vohra herself
becomes a little blurred. Fearless exists on the fringes of the film; the
viewer sees only her hands and feet, and she is most often at work on her
computer. In her chatroom conversations, with women who explicitly call
themselves feminists, Fearless is preoccupied with labels, theory and
identity. Fearless expresses ambiguity about the label "feminist," even to
the point of refraining from calling herself one--until the film's
conclusion. Certainly, to claim adherence to a movement, to call oneself a
feminist, is a political act. But movements catapult beyond their names,
and while defining our politics is a worthwhile task, it can also slow us
Vohra, who is on a quest to understand the way women experience feminism in
their lives, is also driven to distinguish the "true" or "real" feminist
from the false one. She is critical of women who have benefited from
freedoms won by feminists yet do not embrace the label. In one chatroom
conversation, Fearless asks: "Is it enough that feminism works for me?"
She answers "Yes"--but still does not want to call herself one. "Am I being
selfish?" Vohra assumes a moral righteousness here, and the youth she is
trying so assiduously to involve could easily become defensive.
If we want to bring people into a movement, when should determinations
about what is "real" be made? And by whom? How will the film convince the
female college students in Old Faridabad--who state in their interviews
that they are afraid of being independent because they fear retaliation
from men--that feminism, as a project and a philosophy, should matter?
Unlimited Girls provides a look at the history of Indian feminism which
could be informative and inspirational for activists in the West as well as
in India--how Dr. Rukhmabai defied a court order in 1884 to leave her
husband and seek an education in Britain, how independence advocate
Sarojini Naidu led the struggle for women's suffrage in the 1920s, in spite
of movement leaders who insisted the question be put off until after
independence, how tentative domestic violence laws have been passed within
the last 20 years. Vohra's concern with how women articulate feminism even
unconsciously is a universal one--ironically, the film's greatest
limitation is its own paradoxical use of elite jargon.