We started this series by talking about frames that we are familiar with, the ones we are invested in making and validating. There is one frame that repeatedly crops up in discussions of “Indian” feminism, and it’s that of “women’s spaces.” If we look at the history of the women’s movement here, there is a dominant trope (or frame) of autonomy, and it does make sense considering the way the movement launched itself, taking a stand against the dominant internationalism of the time. Maintaining distance from first-world NGOs was important—and to a certain degree, still is—considering these movements sprung from various strands in the left. Women’s spaces, segregation, and autonomous groups are all a part of the legacy of the women’s movement today. So you’ll find numerous volumes and anthologies on women’s writing, geographical and emotional spaces that have been occupied by women, the experience of being kept at bay. Titles like The Inner Courtyard, Women Writing in India, and Speech and Silence are the torchbearers of such writing, that talk exclusively—in their various capacities—of this “women’s experience.”
Teaching The Inner Courtyard a couple of years ago equipped me to look at women’s lives in a way I had never thought of before; one of the side-effects of growing up with “liberal politics of Bombay” meant I’d never even considered that women today may be living segregated lives—Muslim or Hindu. The Inner Courtyard is a space one can still find in a few homes across India, an area beyond which women will not go unescorted by men. Geographically, our houses may be different now; we live in cities or even in small flats and cramped places, but these women’s spaces get translated even into modern architecture. This is precisely the kind of exclusion that Mrinal Pande brings out in her short story “Girls.” Narrated by a 11-year-old girl who suddenly finds herself restricted to these spaces, she doesn’t understand how half the world is out of bounds. Similarly, Vishwapriya I Iyengar, in “The Library Girl,” writes about Talat, who is asked to wear the burqa after she hits puberty, after which half of the world doesn’t recognize her. Again, one sees a recurring sense of loss. A sense of exclusion, confusion, and anger accompanies it. In class, when we’d read, “[…] inside the veil, a darkness seized Talat. It bandaged her eyes, her mouth and sealed her voice,” we’d go quiet, familiar with this silence, but not knowing what to call it.
From the same volume, Anjana Appachana’s beautiful story “Her Mother” is about a mother who doesn’t know how to reconcile her daughter’s transgression of these women’s spaces and the rules of propriety that come with it, and the loss of a voice against such “modernity” hits her harder than her own marginalization. The Inner Courtyard on a whole is definitely an anthology that gave me (and many in my position) words to express what we were feeling, that gave us a frame to view the world, that gave a form to our anger and the confusion that comes along with inhabiting such a space. I still don’t know how to express that moment of relief when I found these stories—when I found that there were other daughters like me who didn’t quite understand these traditions and whose families could not grapple with this unease.
However, today, a question lingers with this sense of relief: Which families even have inner courtyards? Which families have traditionally segregated their women? Historically, it has always been the privileged few—the upper-castes and classes of the Indian social order within most religions—that have practiced veiling, segregation, and separation. This isn’t to pit the working classes against the bourgeoisie, or the Dalits against the upper-castes, or any community, for that matter, against another. These communities do not inherently become evil or overtly patriarchal just because they practice segregation. Neither do communities that do not veil their women, for instance, become immediately resistant. Sometimes, it all comes down to who can afford to have their women not venture out of the house, or who can afford to have working women veiled in a manner that will not interfere with their labor practices. How did some of us start voicing the experience of all?
When we talk of women’s spaces, we should ask: Which women? Some of us do not have the option of being legitimized as women without our veils, and some of us are expected to prove our femininity no matter how many purdahs we may wear. Most hijra women in India today are inducted as Muslims. Some veil, some don’t. And yet most are not considered, even by autonomous women’s groups as fellow women. What does that say about the Inner Courtyard within our progressive movements?
This is where it becomes extremely important to interrogate where the ideas of tradition, continuity, and modernity come from. Whose tradition can become a mouthpiece for the rest of the nation? For instance, the practice of Sati (immolation of the widow on her husband’s funeral pyre) was a custom practiced only by upper-Brahmin castes in certain parts of West Bengal, but just think about the number of stories that talk of this as an “Indian women’s issue”—from Mother India and Around the World in 80 Days to the film Water. How can something that specific become a national issue—or “every” woman’s issue—be it in Western feminists’ academia or within “indigenous feminisms” across India, when it is a practice specific only to a few communities?
Lakshmi Holmstrom, the editor of The Inner Courtyard, mentions that “most of the stories included here have a special kind of complexity. They’re often concerned with overlapping worlds of experience; the world of collective responsibility and obligation, and the world of the individual. What is of interest is the tension or negotiation between these worlds, and the sudden sharp slippage from one into another.” While this is true for some of us, others will never have that option to slip into any world at will. Some of us will not even configure in the idea of Indian feminism. Some of our faces will only remain on calendars and traditional posters of different ethnicities, tribes and castes, providing a little comfort and reassurance to the idea of selective “diversity.”
The Inner Courtyard, undoubtedly, is a voice of the women’s movement in India. I would still strongly recommend this book with the warning that it does not speak for all of us, despite its many claims to do so. It may give very real relief and voice our confusion, anger and exclusion—but it does so at the cost of someone else’s space. So the next time there is an Indian anthology of women’s voices, as feminists, we have to be very careful of what frame we want to perpetuate: Do we want to become the face of liberal right-wing communal and casteist agendas, speaking over and for “the rest”? Do we still want to perpetuate the idea of a women’s space that opens itself up only to a few? Maybe we should be uncomfortable the next time we feel such relief.