Interview: Devaki Jain

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In the front room of an on-site apartment in St Anne’s College, one of the world’s most famous feminist economists is offering me biscuits and tea. Now an 81 year old Oxford alumna, in 1975, Devaki Jain, published Indian Women, a book that would permanently change the way women in the developing world are treated and considered, from historical, social and economic perspectives.

It would be taken to Mexico for the UN’s first World Conference on Women in 1975 to represent the status of women in India. Indian Women was the first of a plethora of academic books and work with the UNDP for Jain’s career as a feminist economist; a career that would help her receive the Padma Bhusan, India’s third highest civilian award, in 2006, for her contributions to female empowerment.

Forty years later, she’s returned to St Anne’s as a visiting alumna. A lot has changed since 1959 when she came here to read PPE. “When I was in Oxford there was never anything about feminism. I don’t know if I was not aware of it or if it wasn’t there.” It was Indian Women that helped her realise there was a problem. “I came into understanding there was an issue about women’s subordination very late. When the publisher first approached me asking if I would like to write or edit a volume on the status of women in India, I said I didn’t have a clue about the subject, but I said I would compile some essays.

When I tried to put together the book, I didn’t know feminists or people from the women’s movement, but I chose academics because, as a lecturer in Economics at Delhi University, I was in an academic space. I met sociologists, educationalists, historians, and we wrote a fantastic book together. I got involved in learning more about women and I focussed on the lives of women in poverty zones. That was like a burst of knowledge. I found that women, even amongst the poorest of the poor, landless, houseless, were struggling to bring a livelihood to their family, much more than their menfolk.

“I went to America on two occasions, and met Gloria Steinem at both points. She came to India as a scholar in 1958 when I was teaching, and so we had a lot of fun. We were both unmarried, young girls, and neither of us identified as feminists. When I returned, she had established Ms Magazine and I had written Indian Women. She explained so many things to me about how women collectively empower themselves by affirming some kind of a ideology of themselves. When I came back and told people in India that I was a feminist, they all said ‘Feminism is a bra burning, crazy American thing, and we don’t like it.’ It’s very un-Indian.”

Jain applied her knowledge of statistics to her knowledge of women’s issues, and noticed that, “in statistics, you define a worker as main, subsidiary, supplementary etc. Women are usually categorised as a supplementary. But I was able to argue nationally that amongst the poor, women are the main breadwinners as they are willing to do anything; sweeping, cleaning, selling scraps, anything to put food on the table. Then I realised that I had to visualise what women are as economic agents. I had to just concentrate on the economic aspect of the women’s life. Now for the last forty years that has been my song. Each time you can bring out something more.”

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It says a lot about feminism that even Jain finds it difficult to define it. “If I say it’s an identity of woman, then I am excluding the transgendered people. But maybe I should say that it’s affirming who I am, but with a special affirmation of an identity which is somehow related to women. I haven’t yet figured it out. It’s kind of a philosophy of freedom and affirmation of self, of rights. The freedom to be what you want to be. But it has to have a political edge.

“Not party politics, but a presence in political space. There are so many different dimensions which I haven’t sorted out. I often say that women’s experience of life, and their capability to do a million things, needs to be celebrated and shown off so that we are not always shown to be people who only do housework and childcare. But the young Indian women know who they are. They say ‘we are feminists’, and they celebrate their identity, and they’re inclusive of men, but they are a solid form now.”

The modern feminist movement in India is moving at a fast pace. In the face of discrimination and patriarchy, their voice has been loud and defiant, especially in light of 2012’s Delhi gang rape case.

“Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, when we were doing the protest marches and so on in Delhi, women in the interior of India wrote to us saying that we were making a big thing of this because there is media in Delhi, but that they experienced these things everyday; women being brutalised by drunken men, girls being raped and thrown into the well.

“They’re common, these kinds of attacks. But we began to feel that it was good it got sensationalised, because as a result of that, so much else happened which has been very healing for us; the law, the police, a huge change in the attitude. That I think is the first step, but it doesn’t deal with caste related brutal rape, or rape in traditional families where the hierarchy of male female is extraordinary.”

I ask what Jain admires about the new young feminists in India, and why their recent campaigns against sexual violence have been so powerful. “They have a great ability to work together, across the country of India, despite differences in class, caste, religion, language, location and preoccupation. They enable each other. If one is writing but can’t speak English, the other can do it quickly for her. They are also independent. There may be Marxists among them but they do not support the Marxist party. But they support every kind of rebellion. So there is a radical edge. There is a lot of energy.”

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Contemporary Indian feminists face a great deal of questioning as to whether their movement is exclusionary of the illiterate masses, and reserved for the privileged, educated middle classes and students. “This new feminism is all social media. Social media which requires Indian languages or English would be unavailable to the masses in poverty. But the majority of these feminists are activists. They are working with the deprived sections of women. They are organising their rights, water, credit, or just creating awareness. So they are not alienated from the masses, but the masses do have less space in this communication. The anti-feminist, conservative male world, which includes the conservative female world, will call us all elites. They try to kill us. It’s a very good way of turning the tables against you.”

It’s not a criticism that’s foreign to Anglo-American feminism. The question of exclusion and intersectionality, particularly in relation to questions of race, are becoming discussed with increasing velocity. I ask Jain for her view on whether different backgrounds, national and ethnic, make a difference to feminist concerns. “I stayed with Alice Walker last year. She is someone who admires me, and I her.” In an interview with Rudolph Byrd, Walker once said, “I have no problem being called “feminist” or “womanist.” In coining the term, I was simply trying myself to see more clearly what sets women of color apart in the rainbow that is a world movement of women who’ve had enough of being second- and third-class citizens of the earth.” Jain picks up on this point, saying that, “‘Womanism’ is very popular in Africa. They want men to be included, not in the sense that they can also be feminists, but in that feminism is too militant and excluding of men. There is a universality and a particularity about feminism. The political spaces and economic and social spaces are different, so I think sometimes it will be difficult to do a universalisation. But I have been writing a great deal about what something called indigenous feminism, that is different to universal feminism. I challenge all that now that I have grown. You don’t need to have feminists of different types.”

Jain ends by telling me that feminism is now more vital than ever before. “The fact that there is a whole generation of people like you, who have identified yourselves with feminism, which has meant self strengthening and participation, is a fire that I would like to grow bigger. Feminism has a moral edge. It fights for justice for all, for men and for women. I find that we are full of fire. So now, not only because there is an economic crisis, but because there is a lot of disturbance and divisions in our countries, feminism can be like a torch that recalls what human beings really want: A just world, and an inclusive world. We fight for that.”

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that Alice Walker was misquoted by Devaki Jain.