A young girl walks down the street in jeans and a tank top. A female university student works the night shift at a call centre, speaking fluent English to callers from across the world. A group of young women meet for Friday evening drinks after a grueling work week. A woman works late hours, coming home to a husband who has lovingly prepared the evening meal. Complete with hot roti parathas.
These are the women described by ML Sharma, defense lawyer in the Jyoti Singh case, as those who “have left the Indian culture” to “adopt the filmi culture, where they can do anything.” (2) Only in films, we understand, is such attire permitted. Only on nasty, imported reels do young women work late hours, in the company of strange men, also known as “colleagues”. Only in television shows like Sex and the City (ode to female debauchery) do women indulge in alcohol and freedom, two of woman’s biggest vices. As for a husband who prepares meals, it is difficult to say who, of the unnatural woman or the man who allowed this emasculation, is the bigger culprit. What films indeed must they have seen!
Now Mr. Sharma’s statements may well stem from a special kind of lunacy. (After three viewings of India’s Daughter, I still wince at his generous – if syntactically puzzling – description of a girl as “a flower, good-looking, softness performance, pleasant”. Or better yet: “We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.” What is truly baffling, though, is that rather than seize this opportunity to show the unadulterated truth on India and her daughters and stand an actual chance of bringing about real change, the Indian government chose instead to ban the film…)
But the fact is that Mr. Sharma’s premise, if not his statements, does not entirely derive from lunacy. The distinction between what is “Indian” and what is “filmi” comes from a widespread idea shared not just by the likes of the Nirbhaya rapists and their lawyers, but also by good citizens of both sexes, who vociferously condemn rape, who profess (and even mean) that women’s rights are human rights and that all acts of abuse on a woman are wholly unacceptable.
That idea is that “modern” equals “un-Indian”.
Dress in a certain way, and we have all been told that we are dressing “European”. Express certain views, for example that there is nothing wrong with a husband who cooks, and one is charged with being “Western”. These are often good-natured comments, sometimes even bearing a touch of excitement from certain women who find such boldness in others quite dangerous. But whether it is good-natured or ill-intended, the categorization is clear: “Indian” means “traditional”. “Modern” means “un-Indian” – whether that un-Indianness is attributed to “Western”, “foreign”, “European” or “filmi” reasons.
It begs the question: are modernity and Indianness mutually exclusive? Are all ideas to do with social change necessarily imported? Is feminism an imported notion? But also, is Indianness a fixed category that belongs to a place and a time, crystallized in a certain mode of dress, a certain mode of thinking and speaking, a certain mode of living?
Gayatri Spivak charted the roots of Indian feminism way into the 14th century when the Rani of Simur refused, upon her husband’s death, to be placed under the authority of either her father or her father-in-law (3). The Rani’s self-immolation, for her an act of empowerment, was ironically to be transformed into one of the most atrocious, anti-feminist (indeed anti-human) practices in Indian history (codified into legislation by the British Raj). The anti-sati movement, however, begun by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and taken up by women and men across India, proved a pivotal moment in Indian feminism (4). Down the timeline, women’s empowerment placed at the forefront of Mahatma Gandhi’s struggles represents another turning point (5).
But if history isn’t enough to show for feminism, there is always the one stalwart of Indianness to turn to – religion. Hinduism is among the few religions that represent gods and goddesses equally. Idols are commonly represented as split right down the middle, with one half representing the male (say, Shiva or Vishnu), and the other the female (say, Parvati or Lakshmi). Walk into a Kali temple and, in face of the fearsome black idol symbolizing divine female wrath, you are likely to find that sexism is not an option among the gods. (Glance also at the skimpily clad statues of goddesses – if covering up is an “Indian” notion, it wasn’t one that came from the goddesses.)
Of course, these events and symbols have done little to prevent the extreme sexism faced by women in India today. Child marriages and widows, limited access to education for girls, institutionalized sexism, rape and domestic abuse are painfully undeniable facts.
But they do suggest that gender equality can be (and has been) homegrown – and while the contributions of Beauvoir and the Suffragettes certainly reinforce the structures (perks of globalization), feminism in India is not, has never had to be, imported.
Neither, for that matter, is modernity – or deviation from the “traditional”. When the Rani of Simur slapped on her armour and defended her husband on the battlefield, the break from tradition was not thought profoundly un-Indian – quite the contrary, the scene (real or imagined) went on to become the stuff of Indian legend. When a woman was sworn in as Prime Minister, the novelty became one of the markers of Indian historical identity. When this Mrs. Gandhi (amid a host of controversial actions), introduced the notion of equal pay for men and women into the constitution, this was part of a notorious nationalization campaign that threatened even to isolate India, not at all open her up to the “foreign”.  
What these examples drive at is that to be “Indian”, throughout the ages, has rarely meant unquestioned attachment to tradition.
To be “Indian” has meant, on the contrary, an adaptability to change that continually redefines Indianness. “Indian” is a booming IT sector, on the cutting edge of innovation, counting some of the world’s most sought-after professionals, among which one million are Indian women. “Indian” is beauty queens turned goodwill ambassadors, like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan who speaks for UNAIDS. “Indian” is a flamboyant film industry, where film-makers like Deepa Mehta and Gurinder Chadha are pioneers crossing more borders than just the geographical, reinventing Indian cinema for global audiences while never compromising its identity.
To be “Indian”, in fact, is precisely to be a jeans-sporting young girl or a driven university student. “Indian” is exactly a high-powered woman with a stay-at-home husband, or a group of wine-drinking girlfriends on a Friday evening at a bar.
To be “Indian”, in the end, is really nothing if not to be a modern woman.