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Feminism in India - Conversation with Indian Feminist Sarojini Sahoo

Traditions Restrict Women's Rights, Discourage Female Sexuality

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Feminism in India - Conversation with Indian Feminist Sarojini Sahoo

Indian feminist Dr. Sarojini Sahoo

Photo courtesy Sarojini Sahoo
A distinguished feminist writer, novelist, and author of several short story anthologies, Sarojini Sahoo was born in 1956 in Orissa, India. She earned MA and Ph.D. degrees in Oriya literature - as well as a Bachelor of Law degree - from Utkal University. A college instructor, she has been honored with a number of awards and her works have been translated into several languages.

Many of Dr. Sahoo's writings deal candidly with female sexuality, the emotional lives of women, and the intricate fabric of human relationships. Her blog, Sense & Sensuality, explores why sexuality plays a major role in our understanding of Eastern feminism.

Is feminism in India different from feminism in the West?

At one time in India - in the ancient Vedic period - there were equal rights between men and women and even feminist law makers like Gargi and Maitreyi . But the later Vedic period polarized the sexes. Males oppressed females and treated them as 'other' or similar to a lower caste.

Today, patriarchy is just one of the hierarchies which keep females down, oppressed by the traditional system.

So what does this mean for men and women who marry? In the West we like to think of marriage as an equal partnership. Couples marry for love; few would consider an arranged marriage.

In India, arranged marriages are always preferred. Love marriages are viewed as a social sin and are regarded with shame. Many Indians contend that arranged marriages are more successful than marriages in the West, where staggering divorce rates are the rule. They argue that romantic love does not necessarily lead to a good marriage, and often fails once the passion dissipates, whereas real love flows from a properly arranged union between two individuals.

Unwed mothers, separated, single or unfaithful women are considered outcasts. Living out of wedlock with a partner is still virtually unheard of. An unmarried daughter -- seen as a spinster even in her late twenties -- brings shame upon her parents, and is a burden. But once married, she is considered the property of her in-laws.

Is this where the concept of the dowry comes in? Westerners seem fascinated by the idea of a dowry, along with the disturbing stories of what happens when a dowry is seen as inadequate.

Yes, the marriage of the bride and groom requires the bride's father to pay dowries -- large amounts of money, furniture, jewelry, expensive household items and even homes and expensive foreign holidays to the bridegroom. And of course you are alluding to the term "bride burning," which was coined in India after several young brides had their saris lit on fire in front of a gas stove either by their husbands or in-laws because of their father's failure to meet demands for a bigger dowry.

In India, as there is the custom and tradition of joint family, a bride has to face her tyrannical in-laws, and traditional Hindu society still rejects divorcees.

What are the rights and roles of women in society?

In religious rituals and customs, females are barred from taking part in all worship. In Kerala, females are not allowed to enter in the Ayeppa temples. They are also barred from worshiping the God Hanuman and in some regions they are barred from even touching the 'linga' idol of Lord Shiva.

In politics, recently all political parties have promised to reserve 33% of legislative seats for women in their manifesto, but this has not been passed into law as the male-dominated parties oppose the bill.

In financial matters, although women are permitted to work outside of the home, their rights on any household matters have always been denied. A woman has to take charge of the kitchen, even if she is a wage- earning member of the household and holds down a job outside of the home. The husband will not take charge of kitchen even if he is unemployed and at home all day , as a man who cooks for his family violates the laws of manhood.

Legally, although the court recognizes that sons and daughters have equal rights regarding patriarchal property, those rights are never exercised; today as in generations past, ownership changes hands from father to husband to son and the rights of a daughter or a daughter- in-law are denied.

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