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Unformatted text preview: Gender in South Asia Social Imagination and Constructed Realities Subhadra Mitra Channa CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi, Mexico City Cambridge University Press 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, Delhi 110002, India Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York Information on this title: © Subhadra Mitra Channa 2013 This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press. First published 2013 Printed in India A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data Channa, Subhadra, 1951Gender in South Asia: social imagination and constructed realities/Subhadra Mitra Channa. pages cm Includes bibliographical references and index. Summary: “Discusses gender in terms of models generalizing upon received wisdom from historical and cultural sources and lived realities”--Provided by publisher. ISBNâ•… 978-1-107-04361-9 (hardback) 1. Women--India--Social conditions. 2. Women--India--History. 3. Feminism--India. I. Title. HQ1742.C485 2013 305.40954--dc23 2013010246 ISBNâ•… 978-1-107-04361-9 Hardback Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate. To the Memory of the two most important women in my life My Mother, Basanti Mitra My Mother-in-law, Jeevan Devi Channa Contents Preface vii 1. Introduction 1 2. Colonial India and the Construction of Upper-caste/ class Women 36 3. Elite Women: Education and Emergence of Feminism 68 4. Work and Gender Relations of a Low-caste Group in Urban Delhi 101 5. Globalization and the Emerging Gender Issues in India 140 6. Conclusion: Redefining the Feminine 184 Bibliography Index 210 223 Preface The idea for this book was initiated at a colloquium in the University of South Carolina where I presented a paper on dalit women in India. After a long-drawn question and answer session, several scholars asked me if I had written a book about Indian women, and that I should put most of my knowledge together and make it available inside one cover. The ideas expressed in this book have taken shape over many years. When, as a young PhD student, I went to work among the low-caste washermen community, in the narrow lanes and by lanes of Old Delhi, I realized that the lives of their women were very different from my own; yet, I could communicate with them as a person, as a human being and also, as a woman, and the many conversations I had over several years of my fieldwork have remained with me. At that time, my curriculum had not included anything on gender and my work had focused on economic aspects of their lives. As my own life experience and my field experiences increased over time, I began to think more and more on gendered lines. Several questions have come up again and again in the discourse on gender: is there a common feminine experience? Does the feminine transcend intersections of other social and political criteria like class, ethnicity and race? Does it include or exclude the notion of sexuality? In other words, irrespective of their sexual preference, are all women, women at some deep and essential level? Does being a woman mean that one is grounded in biological sex, or is it a free-floating category that assumes various meanings in multiple contexts? To a large extent, the Western feminists have centralized sexuality within the definition of gender. My experience with women across the globe, however, has informed me that the essence of the feminine is irrespective of sexuality. As a woman, one can communicate with other women at a level that excludes the male; and this is an experiential interface, a part of the lived existence of women, not to do with thinking about the category called ‘woman’. There is also the ethos of common humanity that cuts across all other differentiation. But where are the roots of difference? What makes one life way different from the other and more importantly, where are the lines of difference or the boundaries drawn? viiiâ•… Gender in South Asia In my encounter with Western feminists, it became clear that I was encountering different philosophies of life and that some very internalized South Asian values were not found in the West and vice versa. This inspired me to examine more closely what it meant to be a woman in South Asia. But even within South Asia, women are certainly not the same; but here the differences are not so much in the metaphysical roots but in the everyday realities of existence. Just like Western feminism is divided along the axes of race, class and ethnicity, South Asia has its own division along caste, class and ethnicity, which situates men and women within a variegated life experience. In this book, I have explored but left unanswered most of the questions that I began with. I do not even think that all questions can be answered, but what I may have achieved is to get across some ideas about being a woman in South Asia. I have also attempted to put forth a sketch of the historical constructions of womanhood and the dynamics of differentiations and their intersections with cosmology and ground-level social realities Although my work focuses on South Asia, the theoretical paradigms and inspirations have been drawn from the immense work done by Western feminists and theoreticians of gender. But I was equally inspired by the stories and narratives of my mother and other family members, including my mother-in-law. The literature and popular culture of India has provided me with many insights. I have also drawn significant inspiration from the works of South Asian women scholars and indigenous literature. It can be that I may not be able to mention all of them in my work, but a work such as this is built up on the groundwork prepared by scholars, living women in many parts of India and the world, who have at some time or the other touched my life, and the received wisdom of many generations of women and men. Known or unknown, I am indebted to all of them. My mother was a great storyteller and had a great quality of narrating stories with vivid descriptions which made people and events come alive before me. In my childhood we did not have television, but long afternoons and leisurely time was spent in talking and listening to a variety of stories. We also did not have air conditioning so the hot summer nights were spent by the entire family sleeping out it the open, and we would talk deep into the night under the bright starry skies. While doing fieldwork in many parts of India, I met so many women, each with their own stories and views, which remain imprinted on my mind; their faces and voices are forever etched into my memories. My mother-in-law came from an entirely different region of South Asia, from the North-West, and her stories opened up an unknown Prefaceâ•… ix world to me. She supported me throughout my graduate studies and made it possible for a young mother with two children to continue to study. The colleagues and fellow scholars who have inspired me and given me courage to get along with my work, supported me and given me confidence to write and speak out my thoughts are scattered across the world. I owe a lot to my friend and inspiration, Professor Faye Harrison who is now in Florida, a scholar of immense depth and commitment from whom I learnt how to work and evolve myself as a scholar. Her book, Outsider Within, was especially helpful to me in this project. My friend, Professor Kelly Alley, gave me the opportunity to spend a semester at Auburn University and learn about American culture among other things. I owe much to my friend, Professor Ann Kingsolver, who not only provided me with love, care and understanding but also academic inspiration, support and avenues to get recognition for my work. It was while spending a year at the University of South Carolina, as a scholar-in-residence, that I was encouraged to write this book. For the present, I want to thank Dr Antu Saha, who was my student but now is a scholar in his own right and who has worked hard on editing the manuscript. My daughter, Navya, read several chapters and provided very useful comments. Both my daughters have been the reason why life and work has remained pleasurable. They have given me the strength to go on even when the going has been tough. Their understanding and willingness to support me in my academic pursuits has finally enabled me to achieve a modest success in the form of this book. 1 T Introduction o create monolithic constructions of women, of any time period or spatial location, is not academically a sound procedure; yet, in every day conversations and in the collective mind, the archetypes of womanhood not only exist but they inform actions and practices, albeit most often erroneously. Therefore, to begin to write a book about Indian women, one begins with a great deal of misgivings and caution. Yet, I felt the need to address this stereotyping to write about something that already exists in the popular imagination as a ‘construct’ with the explicit purpose of demystifying some of the popular conceptions and also add in a modest way to the knowledge about the women of South Asia, in particular focusing on India. To do so, I felt that the gendered methodology introduced and used by an array of scholars, largely to deconstruct received wisdom of a particularly patriarchal kind (not to say racist and elitist), would be contributive to provide a degree of insight and critical assessment of how women are constructed in the popular mind and media and how to look underneath the projected images to search for what gave rise to them in the first place. The attempt has been made to put together bits and pieces to create a collage of shreds and patches and then, to stitch it all together into a tapestry that looks uneven and multi-shaded, somewhat like the patchwork quilts created by the hands of indigenous women in Southern America. Thus, this work may not have the smooth brilliance of a male creation but has the rough realism created by working feminine hands. But let me first begin with posing the question, why talk about women? Societies, at least in the modern times, are identified through their women. Feminine faces, most often than not, advertise locations, cultures and people. Although the world remains patriarchal, yet women create boundaries across cultures; they are exoticized, projected and always provide a reference point to bring up discussions about the ‘Other’. This is understandable in view of the fact that even today, the voices heard most across the world are male; it is but obvious that these voices should be talking about ‘those women’ or ‘their women’. From the 1970s, academic discourse has relied heavily 2â•… Gender in South Asia on ‘gendering’ as a methodology, as a way to decentralize the views of and about the world from a male-centric focus. It is also true that most of what is available to us today as knowledge is via the mediation of the West. From the post-colonial times, knowledge has been monopolized and routed through the West in a way that even knowledge about non-Western people has been legitimized and made available by the Western scholars both to the world and to the people who are the subjects of this knowledge. A gendered methodology has been directed at decentralizing the white and the male protagonist from the centre stage of worldly discourse.1 The feminist researchers have critically evaluated positivism, empiricism and the methods of science (Haraway, 1988; Harding, 1991; Sarkar, 1997: 70) and raised specific questions about the power hierarchies colouring perspectives and findings (Bhavnani, 1994; Haraway, 1991); they have shown that neutrality and equity is not an integral aspect of Western science or scholarship.2 Women have privileged themselves as speakers from the margins, holding vantage ringside positions in the arena of social drama. Since they are not the central actors, they are the critics. They can look up from the bottom, they can speak not as stakeholders but as victims and they can see what the powerful cannot for they do not wear the dark glasses of the profit makers and the exploiters, the conquerors and the killers. For, no doubt, women have transformed and they have been changing their roles, yet, in no epoch of the world have they made history, like a Chenghez Khan, or a Hitler, or even a Napoleon or a George Bush. The most powerful person in the world, the President of the United States, is yet to be a woman, although women have held power in many other countries of the world. The world is still constructed through the eyes of white men or at least, men who dominate the West. Women have been recognized as the silent half of humanity (Beauvoir, 1949). This is the reason why when we talk of a gendered approach, it means the focus is on women; because it is women who need to be heard and felt and known. Gender refers to both men and women but since a non-qualified approach to the world is so obviously male, the qualified approach has to be female. Thus, when I say nothing, it means man, but when I say gender, it means woman. 1 Of course, this is within the post-modernist discourses of Foucault, Gadamer, Derrida and Nietzsche (Hekman, 1990: 13–26). 2 ‘In recent decades philosophers of science have launched a frontal attack on the enlightenment concept of “science” – Following the path breaking work of Thomas Kuhn, the philosophers of science have reexamined the rationalist basis of science and found it to be wanting’ (Hekman, 1990: 110). Introductionâ•…3 Thus, language does reflect social reality. ‘Thus, hierarchies in other realms of life were often expressed in terms of gender, with dominant individuals or groups described in masculine terms and dependent ones in feminine’ (Wiesner-Hanks, 2008: 3). But again, all this is within a Western point of view that has monopolized the gender discourse so that even when the non-Western scholars speak, they have to situate themselves within this frame of reference. So, essentially the hierarchy that we are talking about here, the constructions of male and female, are all drawn from a Western root or philosophy, a point by now raised and debated to an extent that the earlier generalizations such as ‘universal subordination of women’ (Rosaldo and Lamphere, 1974: 7) or the public– private and nature–culture dichotomy have all been culturally contextualized and multiple point of differences have been presented. Although the dominant voices refuse to die down, alternative voices are making an impact and continuing to do so, especially in the new century. What we are now striving for is not to construct differences keeping a Western scale as standard but to completely deconstruct the world and recast it. The feminist methodology with its emphasis on ‘situated knowledge’ (Haraway, 1988: 581) has found support in ecological movements and environmentalism, another platform on which the Western, white and male-centric forms of knowledge have been challenged (Grim, 2001). Thus, women finding a means to express themselves by putting forward their own voice has led to an interrogation of the validity of current knowledge. Feminism, although it challenges modernism, has itself modernist roots emerging from either liberal humanism or Marxism. Thus, a non-Western feminist thinking needs to find an alternative base to situate itself, to look for its roots in its own regional history and philosophy. Speaking of non-Western philosophies, Daya Krishna says, Philosophy is, however, nothing but the conceptual structure itself and hence any attempt at comparative philosophizing is bound to lead to an awareness of an alternative conceptual structure, a different way of looking at the world, a different way of mapping the cognitive terrain than that to which one is accustomed. (Krishna, 1989: 72) Thus, if we approach gender from a non-Western philosophical point of view, then one has to look for different premises of world construction, a different cognitive approach, and these are best examined through those inscriptions that most forcefully shape the cognitive world, namely, religion, mythology and cosmology. Since working from the margins 4â•… Gender in South Asia from a gendered point of view is to engage in critical introspection, therefore, parts of this book may appear autobiographical, but that is only in the sense that gender constructions or even understanding of them cannot be situated away from self. A criticism of an objective centre, as already discussed, is replaced by the subjective self-driven view of the world, that is nevertheless contextualized and formalized through comparisons and drawing upon received wisdom. How Gender is Understood in South Asia? To understand gender from a non-Western point of view is indeed to tread on unfamiliar cognitive terrain. Gender is not a stand-alone concept, as indeed no concept is. First of all, we have to decide which worldview we are locating ourselves in. South Asia is a vast and differentiated continent with at least five major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Islam. The first four are born on Indian soil and often taken to subscribe to some essential worldviews that are more of the subcontinent than of any particular group or cult. Islam, coming from the Middle East, has separate roots, yet on the subcontinent, has modified itself considerably. But in this book, we concentrate largely on the Hindu philosophy or conceptual structure that has informed the other four religions, and although Islam has been an integral part of the history and social life of the continent and left deep imprints on culture, we shall, for the sake of clarity, leave out Islam from our discourse. This is only a methodological simplification for we are, as we shall discuss presently, attempting to construct a model. It would probably be a monumental exercise (possibly unattainable) to go into the actual empirical situations and we shall not leave out Islam or Muslims from our data and description but just construct our model out of the philosophical and social roots of Hindu values and social norms. Another reason for leaving out Islam is that it is closer to the Judeo-Christian traditions of the West. The model that we are building up is away from this tradition and certainly based upon quite contrary premises. The first major difference between the Western or Judeo-Christian and the Hindu/South Asian worldview is that the former is both essentialist and dichotomous. The West believes irrevocably that there are two sexes and one cannot naturally and normally change into another. Anything that is not either here or there is anomalous. Thus, trans-sexed, transvestites, homosexuals, etc., are all considered by conservative whites to be anomalous. There is, in other words, no legitimate place for them in society. Introductionâ•…5 However, the Indian thought is not essentially dichotomous. Transitions and continuities are both normal and privileged. Transgendered persons have a place in society and have ritual as well as cultural value. Myths and folklore abound with stories of sex change, of highly placed transgendered persons and most importantly, the ritual value of the hermaphrodite, half-man, halfwoman, symbolized by Ardhanarishwara, a form of Shiva worshipped all over India. The Hindu worldview recognizes the male and female principles of the universe as Purusa and Shakti, where Shakti is the active principle, the regenerative force of the univer...
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