Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 33, December 2013

Ania Loomba and Ritty A. Lukose (editors)

South Asian Feminisms

Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5179-5 (pbk), vii + 422pp

reviewed by Shelly Pandey

  1. The book South Asian Feminisms, edited by Anita Loomba and Ritty A. Lukose, successfully brings together feminist concerns and the issues of South Asian countries. The book is divided into six sections which together represent the complexities of contemporary South Asian feminist discourse.
  2. The first section deals with the scrutiny of women's relationship with religion by highlighting the tales of Muslim and Hindu women in India and Muslim women in Pakistan. In this section, the essay by Flavia Agnes talks about the negotiations of Muslim women to seek alimony in court which was barred since the passage of Muslim Women's Act 1986. Agnes probes certain court battles through which women have been receiving alimony and shows the contradiction of media insistence on Muslim women's oppression on one hand and the victories of women in courts on the other. The second essay in this section by Amina Jamal deals with the religiosity of Muslim women in Jamat-e-Islami and explores the long South Asian tradition of Islamic piety and the contemporary global discourse on the war on terror. The next contribution by Atreyee Sen examines women's agency by exploring the militancy of women affiliated with the Hindu right-wing organisation. This essay challenges a feminist desire to unify all women against patriarchy as these women are found to articulate and enforce right-wing ideologies. These three essays on the continued and transformed power of religious nationalism show that women are also passionate advocates of ideologies related to community, honour, shame and masculinities, which in many ways contribute to their oppression.
  3. In the second section of the book, Loomba and Lukose have brought together essays that focus on the redefinition of national belonging, emanating from the global transformation of older patterns of migration and labour. In the first essay of the section, Sonali Perera examines the literary writings of working class women in Sri Lanka, who belong to a collective within a free trade zone. Their writings indicate that NGOs, rather than the Unions. emerge as the dominant model for mobilising these women in the country. The second essay, by Ananya Bhattacharjee, offers a unique take on the question of globalisation, labour and feminism. She explores how, in a city like Gurgaon in India, the organisation of labour is shaped by the larger forces of economic globalisation. This section suggests that the global and the local are necessarily interconnected and there is a need to understand the local in relation to larger cross-national processes.
  4. Clustered together in the third section of the volume are essays that discuss war and its aftermath for the feminist praxis. The first essay by Vasuki Nesiah evaluates the role of international community in adjudicating conflict in the counter and difficult relationship between Sri Lankan and global feminist configurations. The second essay by Malathi De Alwis examines the limits and possibilities of radical feminism in Sri Lanka in the context of the massive NGOisation that was enabled by the conflict. The third essay, by Angana Chatterjee, examines gender, violence and nationalism in India-administrated Kashmir. These essays bring attention towards women's experiences of militarisation in Sri Lankan and Indian regions.
  5. The fourth section is enriched by the question of feminist writings, which have been an abiding concern for the feminist scholars of the South Asian region. The first essay in this section by Lania Karim, enamines the politics surrounding Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, whose critique of Islam has resulted in her exile to Europe and India. The second essay, by Laura Burech, discusses the Hindi Dalit, feminist writer, Maeghwal, in an effort to understand how dalit feminists are radically rewriting the trope of a raped dalit woman. This essay offers an image of women who react violently against their rapists. The last essay in this section, by Anjali Arondekar, traces the colonial and post colonial histories of the Devadasi community in Western India. This essay questions the history of Devadasi and illustrates the ways in which contemporary Indian feminism is being reshaped and reconfigured through the emergence of sexuality studies.
  6. Challenges involved in organising sex workers today comprise the fifth section of the book. The essay by Firdous Azim scrutinises the difficulty middle class women have in reaching out to sex workers. Azim's essay highlights the use and limits of the discourse of the rights of sex workers. The second essay in this section, by Toorjo Ghose, examines the sex workers union in Sonagachi, Kolkata, in the context of national and global health initiatives on HIV/AIDS. This essay indicates how the union functions within the power structure of the communist party. In the third essay Ashwini Sukthankar explores the solidarities and dissonances between feminist, queer and trade union approaches to sex work in Bangladesh.
  7. In the final section of the volume, the relationship between western and South Asian feminisms is revisited through a rereading of history. Ratna Kapoor argues that South Asian feminist concerns with present day realities have put pressure on femninst scholars to focus on the most immediate struggles of women. In the second essay Mrinalini Sinha revisits well-known accounts of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Indian women to ask whether non-European contexts are still interpreted through Eurocentric understandings of gender identities. She highlights the pluralities of gender in South Asia and suggests that it is time to see whether these pluralities can yield alternative views of the conceptual categories of gender and sexualities.
  8. The six sections of this edited volume cover a variety of concerns of South Asian feminists. These concerns range from religion to caste, labour to sex work, and feminist writings to feminist theorisation. The limitation of the volume is that the majority of the essays focus on gender realities in India although some essays concentrate on Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The volume lacks coverage in other countries of the South Asian region such as Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives. However, Loomba and Lukose have chosen essays that represent some crucial feminist concerns expressed by prominent scholars and activists. Their insights have the potential to contribute to the theorisation of feminist concerns in this region.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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