Clearly, the idea that feminism is purely a Western concept is inaccurate. Fighting for women’s rights in varied ways, from local level political representation to sati (self-immolation) prevention are all part of the fight for women’s rights and as much a part of the fabric of India as a democracy as other basic rights. And yet, the belief that feminism is a Western concept has gained popularity because it provides some rationale for classifying feminism as a “non-Indian” idea and therefore appropriate for dismissal. The strong traditions of patriarchy in Indian culture are easily visible, changing those are even more threatening for some than the notion of eliminating caste. “These upper-class women come to our village and they give my wife all kinds of funny ideas about what she should do and what I should do,” one man said angrily to me. “What do they know of our situation? My wife never thought such things until they were put in her head.”

Touching the very nature of family relationships and hierarchies is a tender area, and more and more feminists are beginning to realize that for there to be any real movement in the women’s rights, men must be involved. They must support the movement and its goals—without taking it over. Sunara Thobani, the President of the National Action Committee for Women said in a speech some years ago that “women’s rights will end patriarchal power relations…only if women organize and empower themselves. The best thing men can do is to give the women the space to do it and to educate other men. The actual em- powerment must be taken on by women.”

Defining Control

I’d had my own battles with my own Indian and American col- leagues who got so involved in ideology that they forgot that different women have different needs based on their situations. One particularly acrimonious set of conversations occurred over the place of injectable contraceptives in the contraceptive mix available for Indian women. For many years in the United States women’s groups and some foundations have been adamantly opposed to promoting contraceptives that are not “women-controlled.” Women-controlled, as the term is used in the West, generally refers to contraceptives that do not affect a woman’s hormonal levels and are as temporaiy as the woman desires. The cry for women-controlled contraceptives is essentially a call for barrier methods (condoms and diaphragms) and a call against hormonal methods (primarily injectable contraceptives and Norplant, but sometimes including the pill). The concern over hormonal contraceptives (particularly injectables and implants) arose very legitimately over the abuses by governments and medical practitioners in the use of these contraceptives without informing women clients of the associated risks, and without proper procedures and follow-up care. In these cases, women became, once again, simply objects of another’s decisions, forced to relinquish control of their own bodies to others.

I had readily accepted this Western definition of women-controlled methods — until I began talking with village women in India. Then I realized that the very definition of “women-controlled” needed to be discussed. Who was doing the defining? If the definition was developed by middle-class Western feminists, did it apply to poor, rural women in India? What if they were to develop their own definition of women-controlled contraceptives? Would it be the same?

Freedom of Choice
Women in America, and now many middle- and upper-class women in India, have been imbued with certain rights and independence of thought. For these women, telling a man that she will not have sex with him if he does not use a condom is not only imaginable, but acceptable, because of the power and gender relations that exist within those geographic and class contexts. Not so with village women in India. Telling their husbands to use a condom is unimaginable, they told me in several focus group discussions around the topic. Some methods, like diaphragms, that required cleaning with water (a scarce resource) and insertion prior to intercourse, were impractical as well as unavailable. But most of all, these women made clear, they did not have either the power or the emotional certainty to force their husbands to wear condoms or to accept their wearing diaphragms. “Give us the injection,” they would say in village after village I visited. “At least that way, he will not know, and I can be protected from having another baby if he forces himself on me.

For them, I realized, injectables were considered the women- controlled method: The women could choose when to use them, they could control their own fertility in the privacy of their own homes with a single injection and never have to tell their husbands.

Obviously, the ideal situation would be one in which Indian women have the range of birth control choices that exist in America, where men and women together share the responsibilities of decision-making and prevention. But until that point, India’s village women also deserve to have their needs respected, needs that may be very different from the needs that upper-class women living in Western society perceive.

Destinations: India

Modern Women

Feminism is Relative

What are "women-controlled" contraceptives? Depends who — and where — you ask.

Reprinted with permission of Seal Press.

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