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by Subuhi Jiwani

Unlimited Girls
(Documentary, 94 mins, English with some Hindi subtitles, Dir. Paromita Vohra, 2002)

Kanchan Gawre, Bombay's only woman taxi driver, vocalizes how she negotiates the conflicted space of being a woman in a man's profession. Meena Menon speaks of the strength she derives from leading a labor union consisting mostly of men, how this role disproves the notion that feminists single-mindedly concern themselves with issues affecting women. Satyarani Chaddha, the co-founder of an abused women's organization in Old Faridabad (just outside of Delhi), struggles with forgiving herself for arranging her daughter's marriage--a marriage that resulted in her daughter being burned alive in a dowry dispute. And "Fearless," a faceless, ostensibly fictional character who narrates Paromita Vohra's film documentary Unlimited Girls asks: "How do we make sense of love and anger, doubt and confusion, the personal and the political, in this enterprise of pushing the boundaries, of being un-limited--the enterprise we call feminism?"

Unlimited Girls explores women's conceptions of feminism in contemporary urban India. Produced by a Sakshi, a Delhi-based violence intervention group, the film seeks to engage youth, especially those disconnected from the political process. It toured the US from October through December 2003, but screened mostly at Asian and South Asian Studies departments. Its only New York screening was at the November monthly meeting of the South Asian Women's Creative Collective (SAWCC), at the Asian American Writers Workshop. Ironically, this sole metro area screening was only seen by a small group of South Asian women.

Vohra adopts conversation as a medium to investigate how women exercise their agency: how they fight domestic and sexual violence, how they challenge gender roles and biases, and how--like Fearless--they deal with the ambivalence surrounding labels such as "feminist." The filmmaker takes us to the site of Shakti Shalini Women's Center, an organization in Old Faridabad that works to end domestic violence through community and legal intervention. She interviews Satyarani Chaddha and Shahjahan Begum, two women whose daughters were killed because their husbands and in-laws were not satisfied with the dowry given to them at the time of marriage. Satyarani Chaddha informs us of the loopholes in the legal system, which she fought for 21 years before her daughter's husband was convicted and sentenced to seven years--only to be granted bail by a High Court two months later. We are presented with an indigenous feminism of sorts, a feminism informed less by theory and more by the lived experience of the violation of one's rights as a woman.

Vohra takes us into a Bombay taxi where we hear from Kanchan Gawre, who challenges traditional gender roles through her work. Gawre informs us that she doesn't feel like a woman when she is working, and still believes that a woman's primary responsibility is still located in the home. Fearless asks: "In the movie of our lives, do women always have to play a double role?"

The distinction between the fictionalized Fearless and Vohra herself becomes a little blurred. Fearless exists on the fringes of the film; the viewer sees only her hands and feet, and she is most often at work on her computer. In her chatroom conversations, with women who explicitly call themselves feminists, Fearless is preoccupied with labels, theory and identity. Fearless expresses ambiguity about the label "feminist," even to the point of refraining from calling herself one--until the film's conclusion. Certainly, to claim adherence to a movement, to call oneself a feminist, is a political act. But movements catapult beyond their names, and while defining our politics is a worthwhile task, it can also slow us down.

Vohra, who is on a quest to understand the way women experience feminism in their lives, is also driven to distinguish the "true" or "real" feminist from the false one. She is critical of women who have benefited from freedoms won by feminists yet do not embrace the label. In one chatroom conversation, Fearless asks: "Is it enough that feminism works for me?" She answers "Yes"--but still does not want to call herself one. "Am I being selfish?" Vohra assumes a moral righteousness here, and the youth she is trying so assiduously to involve could easily become defensive.

If we want to bring people into a movement, when should determinations about what is "real" be made? And by whom? How will the film convince the female college students in Old Faridabad--who state in their interviews that they are afraid of being independent because they fear retaliation from men--that feminism, as a project and a philosophy, should matter?

Unlimited Girls provides a look at the history of Indian feminism which could be informative and inspirational for activists in the West as well as in India--how Dr. Rukhmabai defied a court order in 1884 to leave her husband and seek an education in Britain, how independence advocate Sarojini Naidu led the struggle for women's suffrage in the 1920s, in spite of movement leaders who insisted the question be put off until after independence, how tentative domestic violence laws have been passed within the last 20 years. Vohra's concern with how women articulate feminism even unconsciously is a universal one--ironically, the film's greatest limitation is its own paradoxical use of elite jargon.

Reprinting permissible with attribution.