Posted by: Vikram | November 24, 2008

India’s ‘incomplete modernity’

The term is not my own, it was used by A. Rajagopal, professor at NYU, as far back as 1996. It came to mind because IHM wanted my take on ‘feminism’. Among many other things Rajagopal was talking about women, who in Republican India, still fight the injustices of a society that starts cribbing when some of them wear what they want. But it is unmoved when many little girls spend their entire childhood barefoot or when men sell their wives in Rajasthan. The attitudes of Indian men in urban India are well documented and discussed and I will avoid repeating what has already been said many times.

Rather, first, I would like to point out that the dominant perception that when women in India emancipate themselves, they will become like American women and forget their Indianness is not only wrong but completely hypocritical. Hypocritical because no one complains about the Americanization of India’s male youth, are women the only carriers of culture ? Wrong, because if we observe other countries where the transition to modernity is more complete in this regard (China, South India, Iran are some examples), we see that the transition has brought tremendous social and economic gains, and in many ways these countries are much less Westernized than urban India is.

I think that the most difficult periods in India’s feminist revolution are yet to come. This is when women in semi-urban and rural areas start asserting their Constitutional rights, and old norms, esp. those regarding marriage are torn down. One can see the seedlings of this revolution, for eg, lady reporters in Bihar, a female ISRO engineer from rural UP and a fire-brand actress from Haryana. Whether they become inspirations or aberrations will be important for the country’s destiny.

Btw, Anand Giridhardas of the New York Times has this brilliant article on this incomplete and sometimes shallow modernity. A great read.


  1. I agree that when the benefits of modernisation as highlighted by you begin to touch the masses only then will India’s modernisation be complete. Come to think of, that applies not just to women, but to men as well.

  2. @ Vikram : I disagree when the modernism will be complete women will still be stuck.
    Did I say this ?
    A good example is Japan. Women in Japan had no right to birth control till 1999. In fact the only officially sanctioned method of birth control in that country was abortion which was made legal in 1948! In my opinion womens control over their own bodies and what they chose to do with them is an important issue for liberation of women.

    Modernity and economic growth does not change the position of the woman. What does change it, it seems is a decrease in the population or change in circumstances like war which forces women to play an equal role in society. I often see similarities between Indian women especially educated modern Indian women and the women I find in Japan. They have not been able to fully shed all their societal chains. However I do agree that may be when India grows more and becomes more modern life may become a bit more easier for a bigger number of women than it is now. Till then we will be stuck with Office Ladies, Home Makers and other such stupid made up ‘titles’.
    Well actually it works the other way usually, women entering the revenue-generating workforce leads to increase in economic growth. But a society actively trying to be modern definitely changes the status of its women, good examples are China and Vietnam.

  3. Vikram thanks for picking the tag and doing justice to it 🙂

    I agree with “no one complains about the Americanization of India’s male youth, are women the only carriers of culture ?”
    I doubt if we will have any other revolution, it will come, slowly it is going on.
    Compared to my generation girls are given no option to be dependent, they are expected to be self reliant, and though that is not a fool proof way to happiness and independence, it is still a very good beginning.

    Also dspite millions of girls not being allowed to be born, those who do have daughters are no longer treating them (or letting them treated as) second class citizens in urban India. A lot, lot more is needed, I agree, but every little bit is good.
    Then we have better laws, like equal rights and responsibilities for all children – which over a period of time will make the girl child less of an unselfish task, more of a good investment for Indian parents 🙂

    With guys like you we will definitely move to a more just and fair society.

    P.S. Anand Giridhardas of the New York Times hasn’t got very good reviews from women bloggers.

  4. @ Vikram : China and Vietnam both had women participating in the civil wars and WWII that led to the acceptance of women as equal partners. The communist party extensively used women cadres. Something similar is up in Nepal. Especially rural Nepal.

  5. So how did you become a feminist :-)- mom’s influence or academics?
    Anyways If you think this way in your personal interactions with women and not just in academic debates, you give me hope.
    All India then needs is more men who think this way.

    Men can help, but ultimately women have to stand up for themselves. If the Dalits who are 20 % of the population can use their vote to become politically powerful and gain access to the state’s resources, then women who are 50 % of the population can also do the same.

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