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ajnabi ([personal profile] ajnabi) wrote2010-05-24 09:04 am

gender & sexuality in south asia: final paper [FINALLY!]

Women's Rights in Modern Indian History

In her essay, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India, Lata Mani emphasizes that "it is important to write the history of colonial discourse, to trace its effects on the constitution of our systematic and commonsense knowledges of our tradition, culture and identity" (Mani, 120). She critiques at length the view that "tradition... is... a timeless and structuring principle of Indian society" (Mani, 116). This view is very much in keeping with "an official western discourse on India... of moral superiority that acknowledged India's greatness but only in terms of her scriptural past" (Mani, 114). The Indian (cultural) nationalist discourse formed itself perilously from this western (colonial) discourse in its attempt to find a distinctive, spiritually superior culture that constituted the inner domain of Indian society, so it could be upheld and preserved as something that the colonizers could not change (Chatterjee, 239). Such a distinctive culture, or tradition, formed the inner domain of Indian society. In this dichotomous view, only the outer domain of the modern, material world had been colonized (ibid).

Furthermore, because proposed social reforms in the nineteenth century, as well as any other critiques of Indian culture and society, so often tackled "the woman's question," women became the ground of the debates over whether reforms should take place or not. It is crucial to recognize that they were neither subjects nor objects of the debate but the ground, because they themselves were marginal to it (Mani, 118). This is evident in several debates surrounding contested social reforms in the mid to late nineteenth century, including sati, the age of consent, child marriage, widow remarriage, etc.

For example, in the case of sati, emphasis was placed not on the actual lives of the women involved, but rather on whether the satis that occurred were in keeping with strict interpretations of brahmanical scriptures. In this context, "women [became] sites upon which various versions of scripture/tradition/law [were] elaborated and contested" (Mani, 115) by liberal Indian male social reformers, conservative members of the Hindu orthodoxy, and colonial officials.

In a similar vein, during the debates in the 1860s over the age of consent for child brides, "the government neither asked for women's opinion, nor did it request Indian correspondents to consult the opinion of the women in their families" (Sarkar, 609). Nevertheless, both the orthodox and the reformist camps in this debate rhetorically insisted that "they represented the authentic assent of the woman" (ibid). Sarkar stresses that at the center of this debate was the fear of the loss of community authenticity at the expense of individual rights for women, also echoed by Mrinalini Sinha (Sinha, 11). The Hindu orthodoxy claimed that increasing the age of consent would disturb the first cycle of the garbadhan rituals. They feared for the denunciation of supposedly fixed cultural norms, which constituted the inner sphere of Indian society. They, as powerful and elite leaders of the Hindu community, "[ensured] their power over the lives of [individual women] through suggestions of the imminent death of the community" (Sarkar, 605). The potential death of the Hindu community was possible because of colonialism, or the "far more triumphalist hegemonic authority—Western reason that claims universality for itself" (ibid). It was important to prevent the death of the community, or the spiritual inner domain of Indian society, at all costs, as earlier mentioned. These sorts of social reforms hinted at the possibility of individual subjectivity of women, and thereby universal individual rights, and hence threatened the stability of the model of the culturally sanctioned and community driven inner domain.

In the early twentieth century, efforts were strengthened within the nationalist framework to retain the inner domain of an Indian essence in the family. It became crucial that "no matter what the changes in the external conditions of life for women, they [would] not lose their essentially spiritual (i.e. feminine) virtues... [and] the essential distinction between the social roles of men and women in terms of material and spiritual virtues [would] at all times be maintained" (Chatterjee, 243). Thus, (elite, middle-class, upper caste) women became the bearers of tradition. The new patriarchy formed in the era of nationalism sought to glorify women as goddess or mother (Chatterjee, 248-9). It also emphasized elite Indian women's difference both from the mannish and crude nature of western women, and the quarrelsome, rude and inferior nature of lower caste Indian women (Chatterjee, 244-5).

The cultural nationalist move to find and preserve the sanctity of the inner domain is ironic because it echoes the supposed colonial policy of cultural non-interference. The colonial administration assigned the governance of "cultural" issues, or personal law, to the community. This meant that "the entire sphere of belief, religious observance, domestic practices like marriage and inheritance... would be codified according to religious norms, scripture, and custom of the community" (Sarkar, 606). Of course, the separation of inner and outer spheres, or community/society from state/politics, is a false dichotomy and an essentialism that stems from European humanist ideology (Chatterjee, 252). This dichotomy was predicated not only on the view of an Indian society that was great in the past, evident in the "belief that Hindu society had fallen from a prior Golden Age" (Mani, 111), but also, by extension, on the perception of India as constituted by " 'communities' constituted by [exclusive and distinct] castes, tribes, races and religious groups" (Sinha, 8). Such a perception was very colonial in nature, as Lata Mani shows. The irony comes from the fact that the very nature of the nationalists' insistence on creating an India that was truly Indian meant that cultural nationalism too was following in the trend of colonial sociology. For the "supposedly primordial communities of ascription [of caste, religion, etc], while building on a precolonial past, were largely newly homogenized modern constructs" (ibid).

Sinha argues that the nationalist movement underwent a shift, largely epitomized in the global response to the colonialist intervention of Katherine Mayo with her book, Mother India. In this interwar period, "the project of mainstream nationalism... had begun to take seriously the search for a 'pure' or political nationalism... 'unsullied... by the 'primordial' pulls of caste, religious community, etc' " (Sinha, 54). In this new model, the Indian woman became, for a moment, "the model for the new Indian citizen" (Sinha, 12). Though this did not last long, it was significant as it signaled a break in the system of colonial dominance and Indian (male) nationalist patriarchy. In the reimagining of nationalism as something apart from particularistic community ties, Indian feminists "[disentangled] women from the symbolic 'inside' of collective community identities... and so constituted women as an identity apart from that of discrete communities" (Sinha, 11). However, as Sinha goes on to say, the problem with such an extrication was that it created "the reconsolidation by default of an apparently gender-neutral collective identity" (ibid). In the aftermath of the rupture, gender-neutral translated to male, and the ideal Indian citizen became predictably defined as normatively male, upper caste, middle class and Hindu. Nevertheless, Sinha stresses the importance of the moment of rupture amidst the shifting of nationalist politics.

Sinha articulates a number of important critical views in keeping with observing moments of rupture in hegemonic political contexts. She discusses the crucial importance of seeing colonialism and Indian cultural nationalism as processes that developed together, building off of and changing each other, as opposed to a view that reduces "all Indian politics to a mere reaction to imperial initiatives" (Sinha, 21). Rather, she wishes to create "a historiographical intervention whose starting point is not the purity of abstract concepts but the messiness of historical practices" (Sinha, 16). She points out that western, and thereby colonial, ideas were not pre-formed and then imposed on India. Rather, "several key aspects of modern European culture... were forged either in the crucible of Europe's relation with other parts of the world or outside Europe and only then retroactively internalized as the essence of a sui generis European/Western modernity and the basis for its difference from a supposedly premodern non-West" (ibid). In asserting this, she does not deny the systemic and hegemonic power of the west, but rather wishes to insist on "an insistently global and intersecting history" (ibid) that does not elide "the unequal and asymmetrical effects produced by the intertwined and interconnected history of the modern world" (Sinha, 15).

Sinha's argument for a view of history that is global and intersecting is radical because it seeks to document the agency of people who are often constituted as an "oppressed" monolith. It is very easy, in describing the oppression that people under a particular hegemonic system face, to bind those people together based on some assumed 'sameness' of the oppression that they face (Mohanty, 337). Furthermore, Sinha's view debunks "the illusion of autonomy and teleology often produced by a nation-centered historiography" (Sinha, 18), and "draws attention to... a nonlinear view of historical causality... that 'renders the relationship between initial cause and ultimate effect deeply ambiguous' " (ibid). Instead, her critique of teleological nation-based historiography brings "into focus the unexpected making and remaking of the imperial social formation: both its enduring stability and its unpredictable vulnerability" (ibid). In recognizing the vulnerability of systems, then, one can begin to pay more attention to the actual lives of supposed "victims" of systems, and perhaps engage in "a more finely tuned reading of what appears to be silences" (Sarkar, 609) of the oppressed. In such a view, it is possible, as Sinha encourages, to move "beyond the determinisms of various kinds—whether material or discursive—to draw attention to the varied nature and processes of social change" (Sinha, 19). Such attention can break down the dichotomous pulls of community versus individual (which stem from the dichotomy of inner/outer), because the possibility of rupture and choice within a system is exposed. Individuals are not wiped clean of community and cultural influences, but neither do those influences have to exclusively determine their identities (Sarkar, 619).

In keeping with a historiography that seeks to uncover the ways in which the "oppressed" can and do represent themselves, Sarkar discusses how the introduction of the word 'consent' into the debates surrounding child marriage was an important departure from previous narratives. She argues that introducing consent into the discourse of women's rights "opened the door to more radical demands" that women could make, even if at the time a woman's consent was not understood as something that she, as an individual, had a right to (Sarkar, 616). This move signaled a chance for women to mobilize and agitate for their collective representation, something that had already begun with educated women who were appearing in print media (ibid). Also, the male gaze that had earlier focused on glorifying the female body was now expanded and altered (Sarkar, 612) so that it was now seen as "a complacent male gaze on a broken young female body" (Sarkar, 613). This alteration resulted from the public exposure of marital rape, and especially marital rape of women who were still children. Political views, whether expressed by reformists or revivalists, had to undergo criticism in the public sphere through modern media (Sarkar, 608). As a result, the media accounts of the brutality of child marriage and rape created a situation in which community leaders "could no longer openly say, without severe costs to their hegemonistic designs, that the assent of their women was not necessary" (Sarkar, 617). They were forced to openly declare that "their stricture was more important than the woman's consent and, furthermore, that this stricture need not base itself on the woman's consent" (ibid). Such a declaration only increased public criticism, especially in that highly politically charged historical moment.

The polarity of individual/community, despite the potential for its deconstruction, continues to be one of the biggest problems facing India today. This polarity has resulted in a dangerous politics of "communalism, whose emergence is inextricably linked with colonialism" (Mani, 120). Even as there has been and continues to be a move towards a more universalist national politics, it is perhaps the very nature of this universalism that encourages communalism. For, as Sinha references, "the universal political subject of liberal thought [is] marked by specific cultural attributes that [issue] in 'liberal strategies of exclusion' " (Sinha, 12). She goes on to say that "the withholding of political rights under colonialism was not an aberration of, but intrinsic to, the universalistic doctrines of liberalism" (ibid). For in a discourse that assumes that there can be universal needs and rights, there will always be those who are excluded. Sarkar attempts to work around this problem by advocating an interactive conception of universalism as opposed to a substitutive one. She explains that "while 'substitutive' conceptions evoke a false universalism by substituting a particular culture for the universal, interactive notions base universal norms on something like a genuine fusion of normative horizons" (Sarkar, 620).

This goal, however, seems problematic. It assumes that there can be such a fusion of normative horizons, despite the blood and clash that the history of hegemony and resistance demonstrates. Certainly, it seems obvious that a woman's right to her life is more important than her community's claim over her life. However, Sarkar's assertion that she as an individual should be able to choose what to keep and what to reject of her culture presupposes an oversimplistic, and rather liberal and dichotomous, view of identity. She refers to Seyla Benhabib as qualifying that "there is a continuity that is posited between the embedded and embodied individual self that can only derive its full identity from a collective, communitarian identity" (Sarkar, 619). Sarkar continues, referring to Habermas, saying that "the two [the individual and the community] are not conflicted but ... complementary identities" (ibid). Despite her careful qualifications, it still seems suspicious that Sarkar can differentiate or separate out the community and the individual in a person's identity. Of course, the flip side of this is that if these dichotomous halves are not separated, as Sarkar is anxious to demonstrate, one identity can very well act parasitically upon the other (ibid). Perhaps this is another avenue in which it becomes more important to refer to people's actual experiences and resistances, rather than speculating about what kinds of rights they ought to have. On the one hand, for the purposes of justice and public policy, it is important to make these speculations. On the other hand, such speculations have been extremely damaging in history and have overwritten varying self-representations of resistant life experiences.


Works Cited:

Chatterjee, Partha. "The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question," Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History. ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid. Rutgers UP, 1990. 233-253.

Mani, Lata. “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India,” Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History. ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid. Rutgers UP, 1990. 88-123.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” in Feminist Review, No. 30 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 61-88.

Sarkar, Tanika. “A Prehistory of Rights: The Age of Consent Debate in Colonial Bengal” in Feminist Studies, Vol. 26, No. 3, Points of Departure: India and the South Asian Diaspora (Autumn, 2000), pp. 601-622

Sinha, Mrinalini. Spectres of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire. Duke University Press, 2006.