The numerous struggles of Indian women for gender justice have been well-documented by academics and scholar-activists. Several Indian women can be counted among key present-day feminist theoreticians, whose works are widely known and acknowledged internationally. Yet, broadly speaking, the women’s movement in India, as in several other ‘developing’; countries, remains, to a large extent, elitist. Almost all of its articulate spokeswomen are highly-educated ‘high’ caste Hindus, who form only a relatively small proportion of the Indian population.
This relatively elitist nature of India’s women’s movement explains, to a great extent, why women from the country’s most deprived and marginalized communities, particularly the Dalits or so-called ‘Untouchables’, the Adivasis or Tribal, indigenous people, and Muslims, have been largely left out of its purview, and are hardly to be found in its leadership positions. On the whole, and barring a few exceptions, ‘high’ caste Hindu women’s activists have evinced little or no interest in the particular concerns of women from these communities. There is no doubt that deeply-ingrained, and often unacknowledged, prejudice against these communities is a major reason for this. With regard to Muslim women, widespread anti-Muslim prejudice prevalent in the wider Indian society must be counted as one of the major factors for the perceived general lack of interest on the part of ‘secular’ women’s groups in Muslim women’s issues and problems. To add to this is the fear that taking up Muslim women’s concerns might invite the opposition of conservative ulema or Muslim clerics and stoke inter-communal controversy. This sidelining by ‘secular’ women’s groups of Muslim women’s concerns has been compounded by the tendency, boosted by the state, conservative Muslim leaders and the Hindu Right, to perceive Muslims solely in religious terms. Because of this, often ‘secular’ women’s groups interventions with regard to Muslim women focus simply on issues related to their religious identity (especially, certain aspects of Muslim Personal Law that are seen to militate against women), rather than on their manifold social, economic, and educational problems and concerns. On the other hand, it is also a fact that certain forms of feminism that are seen to demand complete equality (as opposed to gender justice) for women and men, and that are seen as anti-religion, have, understandably, not attracted many self-identified Muslim women (as opposed to a few highly-educated women of Muslim background whose ‘Muslim-ness’ is simply cultural or incidental and of no particular consequence or importance).
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