Part one of this article can be found here.
Participating in international women’s forums during the interwar years often made this generation aware of their marginalisation as Indian women and colonial subjects within these forums. This was brought home to Kamaladevi while attending a Conference of the International Alliance of Women in 1939 where she found herself frustrated by the lack of Asian representation and the way in which issues of imperialism were ignored ‘While righteous wrath was directed against Nazism, a tight curtain was drawn over imperialism, as colonial problems were treated as ‘internal matters of the ruling country.’ (230). She subsequently persuaded the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) – the organisation she was representing – to disaffiliate from the Alliance. But even when this experience was disempowering the awareness it fostered was valuable because it offered insight into the unequal power dynamics between India and the West, and allowed these women to adjust their strategies within these interactions so that they could better leverage what influence they did have – even if this only meant withdrawing from a network as Kamaladevi persuaded the AIWC to do in order to make a moral and political statement.
Where this generation fell short was in their failure to recognise how their own difference as Indian woman nationalists from middle class or aristocratic backgrounds limited their ability to acknowledge other kinds of difference amongst Indian women, particularly caste, class and religious differences and how these differences shaped the priorities and experiences of these women as distinct from their own. This generation was unable to see how differences amongst Indian women themselves – the very constituency they claimed to represent in these transnational interactions – reinforced the unequal and at times competing power dynamics amongst Indian women.
In response the marginalisation these women experienced within transnational women’s organisations such as the All India Women’s Conference this generation became increasingly interested in developing linkages with other Asian women leaders and visited China, Japan and Sri Lanka during the 1930s and 1940s. Vijayalakshmi Pandit talks about meeting Madame Chiang Kai-shek wife of the Chinese President and a key political figure in her own right, and her influence on Indian women as a role model Asian woman leader. One could perhaps argue that in these regional interactions these women were beginning to develop a sense of what it meant to be an Asian woman – to be fighting colonial oppression, and working within their nationalist movements pursuing a more nuanced understanding of empowerment distinct from that of their Western sisters. Ultimately however, this moment of possibility was eclipsed by larger political events, particularly the partition of the sub continent and the forces that it unleashed.
This moment of possibility, however has enduring relevance today. These transnational interactions provided a shift in orientation for this generation of women enabling them to experience what it meant to be an Indian woman in the world, an experience which in certain contexts could be liberating, while in others, disempowering. These interactions were empowering not because they eliminated experiences of difference but because they changed the context within which this difference was situated and encountered. Kamaladevi remained a fiery young woman political activist in Berlin as she had been in India but away from home her age and gender were not such restrictions. In India differences such as class, caste, religion and political ideology have often prevented women from coming together as women first and foremost in a broad based movement to fight for their rights. Regional or transnational interactions, as they showed the potential to do in the 1940s, could perhaps offer a space where, Amrita Chhachhi argues; the identity of women as a collective political force can take precedence over divisive communal identities. The challenge will be for such networks to provide a space where, as Chandra Talpade Mohanty emphasises, difference can be articulated and acknowledged for the valuable role that it plays in highlighting inequalities of power amongst and between different groupings within these networks, but where it will not be a barrier to enabling women to mobilise within these networks as a political constituency towards a common goal.
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Burton, A., Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women and Imperial Culture 1865-1915 (London, 1994).
Chattopadhyaya, K., Inner Recesses Outer Spaces: Memoirs (New Delhi, 1986).
Annie Devenish researches women in Indian politics at the University of Oxford.