Portrait of Women: Sarojini Sahoo

Life and works

Sarojini Sahoo was born on January 4th, 1956, in Dhenkanal, Odisha (formerly Orissa), in East India. She is a bilingual feminist writer. She holds a MA and PhD degrees in Odia Literature and a Bachelor of Law from Utkal University.  She is also an associate editor of an Indian journal AGE  and a regular columnist in The New Indian Express.

She prefers to write her novels and poems in Odia, and her critical essays in English. Even though her works are published in her two languages, Odia and English, they have been translated into different Indian languages.

She was awarded with the following prices: the Jhankar Award (1992), in 1993 the  Odisha Sahitya Academy Award, the Bhubaneswar Book Fair Award and the Prajatantra Award, and more recently the Ladli Media Award (2011).

Sarojini Sahoo also published on her blogs, Sense and Sensuality and Feminine Fragrance.

Sarojini Sahoo says the reason she writes is: “I write because when I write I am. I am myself. I create myself. I express myself. Some  part of me reaches out to the world and possibly touches the world, and maybe a small ripple spreads.

Her writing includes the following:
In Odia: ten published novels and eight published anthologies of short stories.
In English: one collection of essays, Sensible Sensuality (2010)
One of her well-known Oriya novel,  Gambhiri Ghar (2005) has been translated into English, in Bengal and in German. Another novel, Pakhibas (2006), has been translated in to Bengali and into Hindi.
Her short stories are translated into English and anthologized in two collections: Sarojini Sahoo Stories (2006) and Waiting for Manna (2008)

Women in India

Sarojini Sahoo’s work challenges patriarchy – especially in a society like India where gender equality is far from being reached. After reading several of her interviews in which she tells about the place of women in Indian society, we found it important to give some context before talking about Sarojini’s writings and views on feminism.

In 2012, India was considered as the worst country to live as woman.

Sarojini Sahoo was raised as boy, for her father could not get used to having a girl. Disappointed in not having a boy, he considered her as a boy. She would thus have a short haircut and play with her male cousins. However, as soon as she got her first menstruations and thus, became a woman, she was considered differently. Perhaps it was then that she realizes the immense gap that still exists between men and women in India.

Sarojini’s father’s behavior is not a rare case. Gender-related abortions or girl killings are still happening. Being a woman in India comes with many obstacles and pressure in every part of society.

India government is massively male dominated and current laws don’t protect women enough. Sexual violence is among the most problematic issues. In December 2012, a 23-year-old student was gang raped in a bus and died from her injuries. After that terrible event, voices started to rise against sexual abuse and women found the courage to speak out. Moreover, the government took action with a new rape law, expanding the jail terms and even sentencing to death in the case of a repeat offence of rape, or rape that causes coma. However, it is not enough to actually change the reality: we need a turnover in the mentalities on top of protective laws.

Other major issues for women are the pressure of marriage and their role as wives. If a woman is still not married after 30, she brings shame on the family. Yet, the moment she gets married, she becomes the property of her in-laws. Despite the fact that the dowry has been legally forbidden in 1961, it is still widely spread. Thus, when a woman gets married, she has to bring enough goods, jewels, money. Divorce is still not accepted in Indian society, which is one the reasons why arranged marriages are still the norm: Western countries and their love marriages showing a high divorce rate, an arranged marriage can be seen as the solution to avoid getting a divorce.

As wives, cooking and house chores are the responsibility of women, even when they are working full-time. As for their sexuality, it is not even discussed: it is not a woman’s matter. According to Sarojini Sahoo, many women have never experienced an orgasm, as they are not supposed to take part in their own sexuality.

Of course, we have to remind our readers that India is a vast and plural country, with many different languages, religions, customs and traditions. Such a great country could thus not been reduced to one mere consideration. What we have just described represents a tendency with many exceptions depending on the families and should not be seen as a generality.

Writing about female sexuality

In her novels and short stories, Sarojini Sahoo is famous for writing openly about women’s bodies and sexuality. She wants to express herself as a woman, and to describe specific women’s feelings and struggles that men can not feel. Pregnancy, menopause, rape, lesbianism, are topics that she deals with, with honesty and without inhibition. She has been inspired by many Westerner writers, such as Dostoevsky, Kafka, Joyce, Proust.

As you could have assumed considering the current situation for women in India, female desire and sexuality are not usual topics for Indian writers. Sahoo’s works have been criticized and she was even dismissed from a position at a college because of a novel relating the story of a child victim of rape. In her novel “Rape”, she was criticized because she dared use the word “Fuck”.

Feminism and feminity

Despite her engaged work, Sarojini Sahoo does not consider herself as an activist and neither does her think of herself as a feminist, as according to her, that word has become more of an umbrella term. However, she states: “if I am a feminist that is because I am a woman”. Moreover, even though she is known as the “Indian Simone de Beauvoir”, she herself disapproves.

In her own wordsIn her own words, “feminism should not be a stereotyped hysterical man-hating fanatics, but should be a broad social movement striving for the equality of each individual worldwide. It should emphasize our femininity rather to impose the self-styled classified feministic attitude of the second wave”. To her mind, feminism should not be a matter of gender or an attack against men. Furthermore, according to her, we should focus on feminity rather than feminism: feminism for her actually means accepting one’s feminity, becoming aware of the feminine body and having conscience of feminine feelings. It is also about sexual liberation, which is the main topic in her writings.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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