Women’s arrows – New South Asian Feminisms

New South Asian Feminisms: paradoxes and possibilities by Srila Roy (ed), reviewed by Adele Webb
June 2013

In this engaging volume of essays, Srila Roy provides a fresh, innovative contribution to the understanding of South Asian feminism at a time of great change. Despite major changes in the economic, social and political context since the 1970s, much of the literature presented to date has surmised that the lack of visible political gains of late signals South Asian feminism in decline. The region’s long history of feminism, it is thought, has succumbed to the contemporary challenges of the past three decades, in particular the hegemony of neoliberalism, religious fundamentalism, and the mainstreaming of gender into the language of international development. While the formal space afforded to feminist concerns may have expanded, the social movement as it is known today is a fragmented, de-radicalised and toothless version of its former self.

In the face of this perceived crisis in South Asian feminism, this volume provides a timely and much needed ‘view from the ground’. Diverse, nuanced and rich in empirical research, the eight essays by young scholars from the region locate and describe new feminist articulations in the actions and interactions of the everyday. In so doing they give us a glimpse of just what ‘feminism’ means in contemporary South Asia, and how it has responded to the challenges.

The contents range from a study of the successful campaign to enact sexual harassment legislation in Pakistan, to the acts of resistance to war and violence by Sri Lankan women; from the impact of shifts in union politics for Nepali women on Darjeeling tea plantations, to cyber-feminism and sex workers’ social movements in urban India. There is also a reflection on the South Asian diaspora’s response to a shift in UK public policy from multiculturalism to multi-faithism, which has enabled religious leaders in minority communities to position themselves as the ‘authentic voice’ on female sexuality.

One thing seems clear: don’t read this book if you’re looking for a single theory or formula to evaluate South Asian feminist politics, because the book doesn’t pretend that one exists. Instead, what emerges is a recurring motif of innovation, or what might be called creative politics. In their struggle for equality and empowerment, the women in this new research have expanded the traditional quiver of feminists’ arrows in the pursuit of what is today a more complex, and often more concealed, political target. This makes for an interesting and rewarding read.


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