In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender and Politics in South Asia

  • Introduction
  • South Asia
  • India
  • Pakistan
  • Sri Lanka
  • Nepal
  • Bangladesh

Political Science Gender and Politics in South Asia
Seuty Sabur
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0265


The very construction of “South Asia” is intertwined both with its colonial past and with its intersecting politics shaped by ideologies and conflict over territory. Most of the SAARC countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Afghanistan) have been occupied by at least one colonizer or had treaties between monarchs that ended in massive uprisings, marking the birth of these independent nation-states. In the postcolonial nation-states of South Asia, gender has been used as a frame of reference and as an analytical tool to understand the collective effort in nationalist movements and nation-building as well as in articulating various forms of discrimination. Women forged an alliance on the question of subordination, both locally and regionally. Individuals outside the heteronormative world raised their voices and reclaimed their spaces within the heteropatriarchy. Heterogeneity in race, ethnicity, language, class, caste, age, and nationalities offer multiple narratives of diverse political possibilities in South Asia. As such, the political field in South Asia is essentially intersectional and fraught with contentious debates and strategies. Gender is one of the many components of such a political field, contouring habitus of the agent, that structures and is structured by various social and historical forces. Hence, it is crucial to document the discourses within the movements or any interventions against the heteropatriarchy to make sense of gender and politics in South Asia. A large body of literature has been produced over the past decades on gender and politics by activists and academics from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh. This articles aims to provide a genealogy of these efforts in presenting a rich, textured repository of feminist scholarship. However, the chronological (based on the year of independence) organization of the article based on individual nations may give rise to misleading perceptions of an old area studies model. On the contrary, the intention is frame the article around emergent critical feminist-queer voices who are constantly negotiating with regional and transnational forces and, in so doing, redefining the field in the postcolonial nation-states of South Asia.

South Asia

This section centers on a conception of South Asia as a unified field, despite its fraught terrain. It charts the trajectories of the changing rhetoric within women’s movements and development projects. The discourses within the former are as critically diverse as the fights against patriarchy, heteronormativity, and oppressive nation-states. All of these debates and discourses across the region have defined the field of gendered politics over time. Through four major narratives, Silva 2004 illustrates how, each in their moment of crisis (liberation movement of Bangladesh, ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, and political emergency of Pakistan and India), South Asian nation-states become highly gendered. She articulates the strength of postcolonial feminist theories and how they can be devised so as to resist hegemonic nationalism and patriarchy. Drawing on scholarship on the colonial past and postcolonial development in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the authors, Azim and Sultan 2010 provide an anthology of women’s empowerment in South Asia. Similarly, Loomba and Lukose 2012 creates a space for meaningful dialogues within the region as well as within Western academia. The authors further showcase the unifying voices critically engaging with issues such as religion, state oppression, globalization, corporatization, and NGO-ization in South Asia. Most of these anthologies were conceived to break free from the vicious cycle of providing the developed world with anecdotal evidence from the developing world. Fernandes 2018 presents in-depth theoretical and empirical work on gender in South Asia. Mukhopadhyay 2017 offers an array of feminist narratives of critical engagements with the national programs on education, health, and legal reforms as well as on North-South development research partnerships in South Asia.

  • Azim, Firdous, and Maheen Sultan. Mapping Women’s Empowerment: Experiences from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. Dhaka, Bangladesh: University Press, 2010.

    Explores the theme of body, work, and voice aiding women’s empowerment and how policies and interventions shape the lives of women in South Asia. This volume is the outcome of “Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Programme South Asia Hub: Scoping Workshop” held at BRAC University in 2006. Essays consider three nations (Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) in sharing the history of colonialism and nation-making, and they offer possible pathways of feminist politics for women to straddle.

  • Fernandes, Leela, ed. Routledge Handbook of Gender in South Asia. London: Routledge, 2018.

    This handbook provides a comprehensive overview of configurations of political, social, and historical processes defining field of gender in South Asia. Additionally, it focuses on law and citizenship in relation to nation; representation of various intersections of identity, labor, and economy; and social inequality; draws from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

  • Loomba, Ania, and Ritty A. Lukose, eds. South Asian Feminisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

    Explores the various emergent feminist theories and praxis tackling issues that include religious fundamentalism, women’s agency, activism of feminist labor organizations, state repression, and historical and literary representation of women’s and sex workers’ rights activism across South Asia. Despite of corporatization and NGO-ization, this volume presents possible future activisms showcasing multiple yet unifying voices representing the ever-dynamic South Asian feminisms.

  • Mukhopadhyay, Maitrayee, ed. Feminist Subversion and Complicity: Governmentalities and Gender Knowledge in South Asia. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2017.

    Presents eight activists and academics from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India, who are closely associated with producing and articulating knowledge on gender and development. Some of these essays reveal how various feminist movements faced developmentalism, nationalism, and secularism as well as religion. The articles argue that these movements were not merely subsumed by the governmental projects of UN mandates; rather, they subverted the course of action, posing significant disruptions in “orthodox meanings and assumptions.”

  • Silva, Neluka. The Gendered Nation: Contemporary Writings from South Asia. New Delhi: SAGE, 2004.

    Explores the gendered construction of the nation. Silva picks up the fiction on four crucial moments in South Asian history and argues that while the hegemonic domain of nationalism may unify the mass in resisting imperialists and oppressors, these nations were nevertheless founded on a hetero-patriarchal ideology that poses a threat to women in postcolonial nation states. Further, it puts forth that postcolonial feminist theories can be the cure.

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