Madhu Kishwar is widely renowned as the founding editor of Manushi, the journal that has played a pioneering role in bringing women’s issues to the forefront
of intellectual and political discourse in this book to provide readers an insight into her position on such issues as dowry, the denial of inheritance rights to
women’s beauty contests, and the importance of Sita as a cultural ideal.
Kishwar come across as deeply reflective, insightful and incisive in her commentary on contemporary India. She charts her own course, without recourse to any
of the established ideologies of the age. Off the Beaten Track is an account of a life of contemplation and tireless striving for the cause of a long-neglected half
This book will be of interest to those concerned about the status of women in India.
Mudhu Kishwar is founder-editor of Manushi, a journal about women and society. She is also Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies,
Kishwar is known for her free, frank, controversial but original ideas plus a threadbare analysis, almost always on a very different footing from the usual formal
and professional academic …the book is a treasure in the sense that it provides a continuity of her thoughts in a composite collection.
The essays I selected for this volume cover a whole range of issues concerning women. They were originally published in Manushi during the period 1980-97
Most remain pretty much they were originally published, though I’ve made a few minor editorial corrections, and in a few cases condensed or cut short an essay
to squeeze it into this volume. I made major revisions in only one of essays, ‘A Horror of Isms’ (originally published under the title ‘Why I do Not Call Myself a
After long consideration, in preparing the rest of the essays, I concluded that it would be more useful to readers to have before them the originals rather than for
me to revise them for this volume, with the aid of hindsight, to reflect further developments in my thinking. I have separated them by there. The date of
publication are highlighted for every essay so that the reader may view each in the light of the debates underway at the time and to get a sense of where my
notions arose from and what direction they took. Indeed, if it were feasible, I would, alongside these essays and for each theme, publish related articles by others
which triggered off my reactions, or those which were written in reaction to some of my writings.
Many of these essays were written in the heat of the moment, and reflect the debates, my analyses and the extent of my comprehension of the issues at the
particular point in time. They illustrate a fairly consistent action-oriented social mobilization approach to reform that allows women more options and choices
things. Another common thread in most of my writings is my preference for appealing to the moral conscience of our people rather than advocating authoritarian,
coercive methods of political reform that render people powerless and destroys their sense of confidence and self-esteem.
In several of these essays I also share with the readers the reasons for and the process through which I came to review and my own assumptions and opinions on
a whole range of specific issues and strategies over the years. Both my original orientation and this process on these issues as well as the common consensus on
women’s issues among most of those who view themselves as social reformers, feminists and progressive. Hence the title of the volume: Off the Beaten Track.
My work and writing on women’s issues is inspired by belief that women will receive their due rights and place in society only if they go beyond petitioning the
government to make symbolic gestures and concessions on narrowly defined women’s issues. I would like to see women play a leading role in restructuring our
politics and economy to safeguard the rights of all. The focus of most my writing is how to make our society more humane and compassionate while we seek to
make it more just; how to ensure that the means we use are in conformity with the ends we seek. This is another reason for my uneasiness with exclusive reliance
on the sarkari danda for social reform.
India is a vast, complex and heterogeneous social and civilization. Unfortunately, the post-colonial elites are systematically alienated and estranged from the alive
and concerns of the people. Most of the elite emerge from universities with advanced degrees but very information or knowledge about our own people’s lives,
values and aspiration-especially those of other less advantaged castes and classes and those living in areas. In the absence of sufficient and accurate information,
urban educated people tend to assume that the problems of Indian people are as we imagine them rather than as they actually are.
Unfortunately, due to the deference offered to us because of our privileged education and social status, advocates of social reforms carry a disproportionate
influence in our society-at least in the realm of ideological formulae. Our dim and inaccurate perceptions come to dominate social and political thinking as well
as policy-making. This has often produced disastrous results by obscuring women’s actual optin and real concerns.
One of the most important things I have learnt is that even the most well-meaning efforts to help improve people’s lives can end up in disaster if you do not take
people’s actual lives, dilemmas and perceptions sufficiently seriously, or if you fail to understand the effects of any particular effort at change on other parts of a
complex social situation. Contributing to social change involves deliberate attempts at mobilizing opinion in a particular direction-but if the interventions are
guided primarily by the activist’s own predilections and ideas, without taking into account the situation, perceptions, wishes and aspirations of those on whose
behalf we seek to help bring about change, we can easily end up either as irrelevant pompous impostors or ineffectual authoritarian manipulators.
During the freedom struggle and in the first year of independence, India experienced substantial progress on women’s issues, especially among those groups
which took the initiative for social reform. For example, women acquired the right to vote without having to struggle for it; we were allowed entrance into
higher education and some enclaves in public life with less harassment and hostility than women in most countries of the industrialized West had to face. Those
parts of family law that are state administered underwent important changes and the Constitution included directives banning discrimination on the basis of
gender. However, by the mid-1970s, we woke to find that the gains we made went only a limited way and opened up opened up opportunities for only a small
section of women. They did not bring security against violence and brutality and the right to equitable non-discriminatory participation in the family, the society,
the economy and the polity for polity for the vast majority of women.
These essays are primarily an primarily an attempt to grapple with and find answers to one of the most serious challenges facing women in India today: why is it
that despite all the attention focused on contemporary women’s issues and the numerous high profile interventions by women’s organizations, we as social
reformers have a very poor record of resolving women’s basic problems? While new examples of the oppression and suffering of women are regularly added to
our agenda, almost none of our work has yes resulted in more than a symbolic resolution of some problems, such as passing some righteous sounding but
inappropriate law that has no beneficial effect on the lives of oppressed women. Even worse, the few laws that have the slightest chance of improving ordinary
women’s lives are not implemented, nor does it seem were they even intended as anything more than a rhetorical and symbolic expression of pious sentiment. In
most cases, laws are simply misused-often to make women’s lives even more vulnerable.
The main connecting them in these is to uncover the reasons why social reform efforts to alleviate women’s dire situation in contemporary India have, in general,
stopped making genuine progress. Indeed, in many areas, suffering has increased. Most of the essays in the book attempt to review and re-evaluate interventions
made by Manushi or those of other leading women’s organizations in India on specific issues. This Kind of self- audit, I believe, is essential and needs to be
attempted on a much wider scale within the movement.
For example, the practice of dowry has come under consistent and vigorous attack during the two decades. Yet, despite all the protests, dharnas, and attempts at
making anti-dowry laws more and more stringent, the peculiarly extortionist versions of dowry have grown and thrived in India and brought many new regions
and communities under its influence. Nowhere has the practice of dowry been halted or contained. The first three essays-‘Beginning with Our Own Lives: A call
for Dowry Boycott’,’Rethinking Dowry Calculations’-delineate how, starting with a simplistic but determined abolitionist approach, I was compelled to revise
and reform our mode of intervention when we found that our initial efforts were altogether fruitless. The abolition efforts followed a characteristic pattern:
misplaced reforming zeal based on poorly reasoned theoretical premises without an adequate understanding of complex social forces which bolstered the
practice and institution of dowry. Our failure to make a dent a dent on this charged issue convinced me that the practices concerning dowry, as they exist in India
today, are a consequence, not the primary cause, of the devaluation of women’s lives. The main reason for the continuation and growth of dowry was not
‘growing greed’, as many believed within their natal families.
Major changes in women’s position in their natal family and in the society and economy at large must precede and provide support for women’s security against
oppression and exploitation before dowry will be abolished or its practice transformed into a more gender-neutral transaction, the way that it functions in some
other societies. The essays reproduced here, and related articles I wrote sharing my rethinking on dowry and property rights, created a major furore within
mainstream thing. In particular, many feminist(s) responded with great hostility to my changing perceptions and suggestions for reform. That entire debate,
carried out both through the pages of Manushi as well as in newspapers and academic journals, cannot be reproduced here in full for reasons of space.
The essay ‘Knocking at the Portals of Justice: The Struggle for Women’s Land Rights’ (originally published under the title ‘Public Interest Litigation: One Step
Forward, Two Steps Backward’) illustrates a miserable failure we experienced trying to combat the culture of disinheritance for women relying primarily on law
courts and legislation. The legal aid work we undertook-both in individual cases as well as on behalf of large communities of women-forced us to conclude that
a dysfunctional, corrupt and insensitive legal system within a culture not sincerely committed to providing justice for women could not be expected to provide a
remedy for women’s culturally sanctioned disinheritance. These legal interventions have, very often, on balance, unfortunately resulted in further jeopardizing
the already fragile existence of women.
The next group of Roop Kanwar’, ’co-ownership Right for Wives’ and ‘When Daughters are Unwanted’-analyses the actual negative consequences of well-
meaning but misplaced efforts by political groups, including women’s organizations, to get poorly constructed and unimplementable new laws enacted,
ostensibly to protect women from abuse and exploitation. As subsequent events show, none of those new laws have succeeded in achieving the purposes for
which they were meant. The essay ‘A Code foe Self-Monitoring’ offers an over-all critique of the statist approach to social reform-that is, then tendency of the
educated elite to attempt to play God and issue commandments in the form of ever newer versions of ineffectual legislation for the rest of society that pretend to
offer remedies for the oppression of women. The article analyses why this approach has been so harmful.
The three essays on electoral politics-‘Violence and the 1989 Election’, ‘Out of the Zenana Dabba’ and ‘Women’s Marginal Role in Politics’-analyse the reasons
for the low rate of participation and the ineffective leverage of women in the political institutions of our country. They try to figure out what would be the
essential preconditions to bring about an enhanced and meaningful participation of women in representative institutions.
‘Love and Marriage’, ’Women, Sex and Marriage’, and ‘Yes to Sita, No to Ram!’ have been as controversial as the essays on dowry and inheritance rights-and for
similar reasons. They essentially argue against the common tendency among many feminists to dismiss with disdain the choice(S) that ordinary women make
from among the limited alternatives available to them. These articles attempt to understand why most women in our society struggle so hard to keep even bad
marriages intact; how ordinary women in our culture explain the rationale for their choices on issues that affect most deeply; how they try to negotiate their
intimate relationship with men; why Sita-a symbol of women’s slavery for most feminists-continues to be such an important role for women in India; why
women prefer family-arranged marriages to self-arranged ones; whether it is appropriate to call all self-arranged marriages ‘love marriages’; the absurdities in
our definitions of sexual liberation; and why most married women seem less interested in their own sexual liberation and more concerned about keeping their
husbands within some restraints.
The conclusion I arrived at on these issues proved extremely unpopular with some political group and with moat feminists. As with the dowry articles, I was
accuse of having turned into an apologist for the oppression of women, after having started off as a radical proponent of women’s rights. I confess I have been
able to deal with women’s rights issues in terms of labels such as ‘radical’ versus ‘conservative’. I am more concerned about being sensible, trying to understand
what different group of women want, and to find concrete and pragmatic ways to actually strengthen their abilities to live without fear or oppression, rather than
to make women’s lives an experimental lab for our supposedly radical ideas. I have tried to respect other women’s choices and aspirations even when they have
gone against many of my cherished beliefs concerning what is a fulfilling life.
The essay on sex harassment explores the social and psychological reasons why many women fall prey to sexual harassment, including those who are from well-
off and supposedly privileged families. It also explores some of the implications of restrictions on women’s status and opportunities and offers some strategies
women may find useful in resisting sexual exploitation.
‘When India ‘’Missed’’ the Universe’ critically evaluates my own past activism with regard to opposing beauty contests. The fallouts from that experience inhibit
me today from adopting a one-dimensional oppositional role, even while I recognize and wish to continue to combat the harmful impact of the culture of beauty
contests and its obsession with purveying of women’s bodies as decorative objects for display and consumption. Once again I find myself facing the same old
moral dilemmas: these contests may be seen as strategies to make women more self-hating while they are diverted into chasing manufactured dreams.
Nevertheless, if this display is something women choose of their own free will, do we, the self-appointed guardians of social, morality, have the right to call for a
‘Who Am I?: Living Identities vs Acquired Ones’ explores the many harmful effects of pushng people towards unidimensional identities-a strong trait among
followers of various ‘isms’, including feminism. It also explores the question why and under what circumstances certain aspects of a person’s identity come to
overwhelm all other concerns and layers, and why we have to build safeguards against such a tendency.
Finally, the article ‘Why I not Call Myself a Feminist’ deals with my own reservation about being labelled a feminist. It is at one level a personal statement
tracing the process of and reasons for my estrangement from the version of feminist ideology implemented in many of the dominant grouping in India. However,
I have tried to go beyond the personal dimensions of that strife to raise certain basic theoretical and practical questions about ‘ism-driven’ politics not just in
India, but throughout the world.
Some of these essays don’t go beyond raising questions, but in most there is some attempt to provide tentative directions for future action. I emphasize the world
‘tentative’ because I am only too aware that I still have limited knowledge and experience of the social and political dynamics and regions in India. I am also
acutely conscious of the fast that I have had to face very few of the disabilities imposed upon most women in most societies. I have been fortunate to live a life
of my own choice without facing the usual social constraints. Therefore, my experience of handling the social and familial pressures that hamper most women’s
lives is limited. I have tried to offset this predicament by making a special effort to sympathetically understand the choices women make, the values they hold
dear and they go about trying to negotiate a better deal for themselves and their children. I have tried to understand what they see as the hurdles in the way of their
well-being, the forces that weigh them down and the types of interventions that they think might make life better for them.
I would like my work to meet their requirements as possible, to make new options available and known to them insist on imposing my own ideological agendas.
I leave it to each reader to decide whether these essays are anywhere close to the goals I set for myself.
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