When a picture of twitter CEO Jack Dorsey holding a “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy” poster for a photo-op at a closed door meeting with women went viral, an army of “offended” Brahmins burst into outrage, which quickly escalated into anger and name-calling. As accusations of caste hate poured in, Twitter quickly issued a diplomatic apology and distanced itself from the issue.

Women writers, activists, journalists and “influencers”, however, confronted the trolling and upheld the need to #smashbrahminicalpatriarchy, just as they have been holding down the #Metoo fort. It turned, perhaps inadvertently, into a fine moment of intersectionality, where the oppressive systems of gender and caste hierarchy were questioned simultaneously. Despite shrill denials of any extant Brahminism or a resultant patriarchy, it has become a moment of reckoning, for, in Simone de Beauvoir’s words:

“All oppression creates a state of war. And this is no exception.” 

One of the reasons the “Mother of Modern Feminism” continues to stay relevant even after 70 years of her legendary book The Second Sex is patriarchy’s mulish resistance to change. The face of misogyny may have changed in urban spaces, but the casualties are bad as ever. Very recently, the young scholar and political activist Shehla Rashid quit Twitter after sustained harassment and abuse. In India, the problems of women are compounded by the complex and oppressive caste matrix. If women have it hard in a patriarchal, Brahminical society, Dalit and Muslim women have it much, much harder.

One of the best ways to resist this is to understand the forces one is fighting.

Much like their Western counterparts – such as Mary Wollstonecraft (Vindication of the Rights of Women: 1792, Elizabeth Stanton (History of Woman Suffrage: 1881), Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique: 1963), Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch: 1970), bell hooks (Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center: 1984), Audre Lorde (Sister Outsider: 1984), Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth: 1990), Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues: 1996) and, recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (We Should All Be Feminists: 2014) – India’s robust tradition of feminist writers has stood up for the cause and added powerful voices to the movement. Many of the nuances of gender, religion and caste struggle in the Indian context can be understood through the writings of such women.

The earliest voices

As the wonderful anthology Unbound (2015), edited by Annie Zaidi, reminds us, the earliest written records of “breakaways” are those of Buddhist nuns from the Therigatha. Some of these poems were composed as early as the sixth century BCE, and are voices of those women who chose their spiritual aspirations above everything else. Advocates of the “great tradition of ancient Hinduism”, of course, like to present Vedic characters such as the sages Gargi, Maitreyi and Lopamudra as the first examples of feminist liberals, but there is little evidence of these women having actually existed or having written anything. However, there’s no harm in finding some gleeful inspiration from their stories of standing up to snooty male Brahmin scholars.

It would be many more centuries before Indian women would start demanding and actually getting some literary agency. These were, of course, women outside the ambit of society, who, having cast off the weight of being a man’s property, found their voices. The Bhakti Movement became a level playing field and yielded stars like Andal (seventh or eighth century CE), Akka Mahadevi (twelfth century CE), Lal Ded (fourteenth century CE), and Meerabai (sixteenth century CE), among others. Though primarily devotional and directed towards male gods, their poems reflect an autonomy of spirit in a society that expected only convention and obedience from them. In their rejection of conventional gender roles and attributes, they set the earliest examples of feminism in action.

Zany at the zenana

Close on their heels came some fiery Mughal women, brandishing their unique brand of feminism (as shocking as it sounds to a nation being increasingly blinkered by the Hindutva narrative). Despite their largely cloistered existence, some of the Mughal princesses and queens lived on their own terms and left behind records for us to read and be draw inspiration from. Remarkable among their written records are Ahval-I Humayun Badshah by Gulbadan Begum (sixteenth century CE) – making her perhaps the first female historian of the Mughal court. Gulbadan Begum’s writing, though largely chronicling the life of her brother, emperor Humayun, offers interesting perspectives on life within the zenana and even mentions a ladies-only Mecca tour that she and her associates went on.

Writing was also among the many talents of the great empress Nur Jahan – she is known to have written poetry, though not much of it survives. Like her, Padshah Begum Jahanara too was renowned for her autonomous ways and love of all things literary. She not only wrote but also commissioned compositions and translations of several works. A renowned Sufi faqirah (ascetic) herself, she wrote Risālah-i-Sāhibīyahwas – a biography of her chosen spiritual master, Mullah Shah – and Mu’nis al-Arwā, a biography of the great saint, Moinuddin Chisti.

Her niece Zeb-un-Nissa followed in her footsteps and became an accomplished scholar, a patron of the arts and a poetess. Committed to the arts, she composed voluminous works of poetry including Diwan-i-Makhfi (posthumously published), Monis-ul-Roh, Zeb-ul Monsha’at and Zeb-ul-Tafasir. Initially a favourite of her father Aurangzeb, she eventually fell out of favour with the emperor and was imprisoned for 20 years. Although there are conflicting accounts of what caused this misfortune, it is not hard to imagine it as a price a woman who chooses to tread her own path is made to pay.

Beginnings of modern-day feminism

Fortunately, some of the later day Indian feminists had better luck with their male relatives, and helped move the narrative forward. One such trailblazer was Savitribai Phule, who is rightfully considered the pioneer of women’s education in India. Along with her husband, Jyotirao Phule, she worked tirelessly for those oppressed by caste and provide access to education for girls. She wrote poetry reflecting her struggles and ideals, which were published as the compilations titled Kavya Phule and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar.

Another of Maharashtra’s glorious daughters was Pandita Ramabai. Given the titles Pandita and Sarasvati for her peerless knowledge of Sanskrit, this gumptious woman could match any man in scholarship and ambition. Marrying outside her community and caste, travelling within and outside the country, establishing educational organisations, ardent social activism, studying medicine and converting to Christianity – Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati set many precedents for successive feminists. But perhaps her most memorable contribution is her book High Caste Hindu Woman (1887), which exposed all manner of gender oppression disguised as tradition and customs. Written over 100 years ago, the book is rich with the lived truths of many a Brahmin woman. If Brahmin women suffered the way they did, what about the horrors faced by Dalit women? In fact, Urmila Pawar’s book The Weave of My Life (1988), written a century later tells us exactly those tales.

India’s Second Wave feminist writers

India’s second wave of feminism was reflected in the works of post-Independence writers like Ismat Chughtai, Amrita Pritam, Mahasweta Devi, Krishna Sobti, Kamala Das and Kamala Markandaya. Exploring notions of boundaries, bodies and sexualities, these writers were negotiating their place in a new nation still smarting from the fresh wound of Partition. Placing selfhood above nationhood and convention, their books were defiant and progressive, inevitably drawing criticism. While some of these authors opposed violence through their words and characters, others turned witnesses and truth-tellers about the sorry state of Indian women. Chughtai was known for her especially radical feminist views, and the story of Lihaaf (1942) and her persecution is of course well known.

Other notable books that form a must-read list of feminist writing from India include Sobti’s Mitro Marjani (1966), Pritam’s Pinjar (1950), Das’s autobiography My Life (1973), Mahasweta Devi’s Breast Stories (translated from Bengali by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 1997), and Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve (1955). In addition to these fiction writers, academics such as Uma Chakravarti and Kumkum Roy, and activists such as Kondapalli Koteswaramma and Kamla Bhasin have contributed remarkably to the understanding and fostering of feminism in India.

The next generation of notable feminist writers include Anita Nair, and mother-daughter duo Anita and Kiran Desai. Shobhaa De’s books also warrant a mention here, for many an Indian woman of the 1990s first encountered an unapologetic, liberalised view of feminine sexuality through her “pop novels”. Their writings are reflective of urban Indian women and the way they navigate the complexities of contemporary womanhood.

The more serious voices of feminism found a champion in publishers like Urvashi Butalia, who co-founded Kali for Women in 1984, along with Ritu Menon. It was India’s first exclusively feminist publishing house in English, which gave us memorable books like Shareer ki Jankari, The History of Doing, Staying Alive and Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. After Butalia and Menon split in 2003, the former started Zubaan Books, which continues to support feminist writing and ensures a steady, quality stream of women’s literature.

Feminist literature by women writing about caste and gender has among its recent champions, Bama (Karukku: 1992), sociologist Sharmila Rege (Writing Caste, Writing Gender: 2006) and, most recently, Sujatha Gidla (Ants Among Elephants: 2017). The way for them and their books was paved by writers like Baby Kamble, Pradnya Pawar, Chaya Koregaonkar, and Shilpa Kamble, who represented some of the most suppressed voices of Indian society and offered a sweeping view of Dalit identity, Ambedkarite learnings and Neo-Buddhist ideas.

Readers must also note the new genre of radical feminist mythological fiction, championed by writers like Pratibha Ray, Chitra Banerjee-Divakaruni, Kavita Kane and Anuja Chandramouli, among others. Their reclaiming of identities of mythical heroines will, one hopes, dislodge the submissive Sita-Savitri ideal of the woman in Indian mythology.

What about the next set of books? Circling back to the beginning, we meet the many famous and, sometimes, faceless feminists of Twitter, who fight the daily fight against the raging fire of misogyny with their hosepipes of courage, erudition, wit, empathy, sisterhood, and sometimes, sarcasm. Perhaps a publisher like Zubaan will soon publish a title fittingly representative of our times: Feminists Versus Trolls. Because, as Beauvoir said:

“Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.”