The Third Wave of Feminism is upon us all. As India adjusts to this new phase of growth and empowerment, Gayatri Bhatnagar tells us how events like – the uproar against the Bois Locker Room incident, the #MeToo movement, the backlash against Fair & Lovely, the Supreme Court’s judgment in NALSA and many other watershed moments have ushered in a new era of Indian feminism.

The news of the recent Bois Locker Room incident sparked nationwide shock and outrage. On an Instagram group chat, boys aged between 14-17 shared inappropriate pictures of underage girls, objectified them, all accompanied by lewd bordering on dangerous comments. This incident was one of the latest ones to establish that violation of consent exists across all classes and strata, and highlighted the growing need for gender sensitisation, especially among children. The third wave of feminism’s applicability in India is a step (and maybe, a leap) towards bridging the gap.

Historically, the feminist movement in India occurred in three major waves: pre-Independence (first wave), post-Independence (second wave), and the fairly recent third wave. Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule kickstarted the first wave when they started the first school for girls in 1848. Rabindranath Tagore and Raja Ram Mohan Roy contributed by opposing practices such as sati and polygamy. They also advocated for widow remarriage and the right of women to own property. Many organisations also came into being to fight for these reforms. In the second wave, the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 outlawed polygamy, made inter-caste and inter-religious marriages legal, granted equal rights of divorce to both men and women, and made child marriage punishable. More legislations like the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 and the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961 were also passed. There was also an increase in the number of non-governmental organisations, exclusively for women.

The third wave of feminism started around the 1990s in the USA, and more recently in India. As compared to the first two waves, the third wave is abstract and focuses on the individuality of every woman. It seeks to be more inclusive in its objectives like intersectionality, gender determination, beauty ideals, body positivity and the rights of trans persons, who were largely excluded from feminist movements thus far.

It’s “arrival” in India was marked with various forward-looking reforms as well as fights against many draconian laws and conceptions. Some of the noteworthy shape-ups include:

  1. An increase in the number of collectives working for the welfare and protection of the transgender and intersex community. Leading the fight are The Humsafar Trust, Sampoorna Working Group, and Tweet Foundation among others. The NALSA Supreme Court judgement of 2014 gave transgender persons the right to self-identification and reaffirmed their fundamental rights. Despite facing criticism, it was a critical litigation tool. However, the same is now jeopardised by the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. This Act has attracted severe community-wide condemnation for being against the NALSA judgement, its ambiguity and violation of privacy.

  2. An increase in dialogue pertaining to as well as recognition of gender as a spectrum. Research has shown that gender is beyond the binary—there exist more genders than male and female. Tinder India was the first major corporation that recognised this. In 2018, they introduced 23 gender identity options in their app. Queer activists like writer Gopi Shankar Madurai and Indian-American poet Alok V. Menon are striving every day to further the conversation around the gender spectrum.

  3. Raya Sarkar sparked off the first MeToo Movement in 2017 when she released a List of Sexual Harassers in Academia (LoSHA). It had 75 names from approximately 30 colleges and universities across India, the UK and the US. Sarkar’s rationale for releasing the list was “not to shame anyone, but to make students—the most vulnerable—wary of sexual predators”.

  4. Sarkar’s release of LoSHA was a watershed moment that, in subsequent years, led to the second and third MeToo movements in 2018 and 2019. Women came forward with their stories of sexual harassment faced at the hands of prominent men by directly naming them on social media. This naming had a tangible impact. Several men—journalists, admen, filmmakers, artists—lost existing projects, were sent on leave or made to face investigations by Internal Complaints Committees of their organisations. Sarkar said, “It is changing the discourse on ‘witch hunt’... also, I hope, changing the notion that only direct evidence counts as credibility.”

  5. The growing acceptance and acknowledgement of intersectionality. A term coined by American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is the study of how different power structures interact in and with the lives of minorities, specifically black women. In the Indian context, intersectionality can be used to understand the effect that various intersecting/overlapping social structures have on women. For example, caste, class and ability all intersect and influence each other. An upper caste woman living in a city troubled by the glass ceiling at work will have different asks from feminism than a lower-caste woman who works as a labourer in an unorganised sector. While Nivedita Menon argues against intersectionality in the Indian context, Dr Mary John is an advocate of the concept. Menon remarks that “owing to India’s anti-imperial struggles, leaders and practitioners are constantly engaging with multiple identities”. Dr John, on the other hand, points out that it is critical to understand the effect of various overlapping systems of oppression; only then can suitable solutions be worked out.

  6. The growing criticism and opposition against existing beauty ideals. From representation in school books to the requirements for brides in marriage advertisements, the toxicity is omnipresent. Recent years have seen a rebellion against these ideals in the form of independent projects like browngirlgazin and India’s Got Colour. Fair & Lovely, a market leader in skin lightening products, faced backlash when it recently changed its name to Glow & Lovely. Many realised that changing the name was merely a superficial gesture attempting to undo decades of contribution to harmful beauty standards.

  7. Sexism is deeply rooted in the Indian psyche, and there’s plenty of proof. From the country slipping to 112 on the latest World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index to studies uncovering the problematic portrayals of gender roles in school textbooks, there’s recognition of the need for gender sensitisation. As remedial measures, organisations like Gender Lab conduct school workshops that focus on helping children unlearn toxic masculinity. Delhi government also announced that it would introduce a gender sensitisation curriculum from 2020-21.

The main idea of the third wave is to have a more comprehensive approach than its predecessors. It questions existing patriarchal power structures and social systems that contribute to the continued oppression of women – something that the first two movements did not do. This progress-for-all approach is the reason why the third wave is the way forward.