Beyond A Mother, A Wife Or A Prostitute: Where’s The Space For A Woman’s Autonomous Identity?

Posted on September 12, 2014 in Gender-Based Violence, Sex Work, Sexism And Patriarchy, Society, Staff Picks, Taboos

By Shivani Makkar:

Where do you start?

The family, streets, society, workplace…each place has become a battlefield where the eternal combat continues. I was lucky enough to be able to decide the course of my own life, but it is a sorry fact that I count this as a privilege, because the even sorrier truth is that a majority of women in this country cannot do so. Their voices are suppressed and their fates decided by the men in their lives. I suffer a sense of hopelessness sometimes. More often is a deep-seated shudder inside: what if there is no way out?

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But as I begin to think of a solution to this much debated issue, even more questions arise. Firstly, is ‘woman’ a homogenous category? In India for example, the society is split along caste, class, and religious lines. How then, can we aim to arrive at a single ‘one for all’ magic formula for the emancipation of women? The world over, women do not just, not even primarily, see themselves through the prism of a gender, but rather as black, Dalit, Hindu, Jewish, etc. Consequently we have seen the emergence of Dalit feminism, lesbian feminism, and black feminism that has created a divide in the feminist movement based on the reasoning of experiential reality.

The fight, I believe, needs to be addressed at a psychological, subconscious level. The gangrape of a medical student in Delhi in December 2012, that shook the ‘nation’ (read cosmopolitan cities), and the consequent anger that poured out on to the streets and was seen in the vigorous debates it sparked off, gave many, including me, a glimmer of hope; maybe things could still change. But what was conspicuous was the language adopted by the irate public – abusing the mothers and sisters of everyone they thought was guilty. This is a method that has almost become a law- you are not insulting the other party unless their women are involved.

Thus the problem cannot be viewed through the filter of rape and bodily integrity alone. Rape is a manifestation- an extreme form- of the mentality prevalent in our society. It is not just a sexual act; it is essentially an act of violence, of humiliation and suppression of the ‘weaker’ sex. What is needed is to readdress the mind-set that condones and even encourages such acts of savagery. We need to remember that patriarchy is customary to almost all societies, only the conception of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ differs. Since before their birth, children are assigned the different roles they will be cast into based on their sex; the names they will bear, the toys they will get, their dresses, bedtime stories, behaviour, etc. This social conditioning is so subtle and deeply ingrained, that we have become completely unconscious and unfazed by it. Even our language is gendered, so much so that we have no vocabulary to converse with someone who does not fit into the two-sex model, of either a male or a female.

Simone de Beauvoir, the French theorist and feminist, in her ground-breaking work, ‘The Second Sex’, talked about the history of the establishment of patriarchy: man was taken to be the norm, the rule, whereas women’s existence was seen to be an accident, albeit a fortunate one. She was thus firmly established as the ‘Other’. It is this notion of being superior to the other half, the perception that women must be kept under their thumb that has sustained the dominance of the man for centuries.

We thrive on this thinking today. The culture that has taken roots, cultivated by the films we see, the celebrities we idolize, the consumerist vulgarity we are driven by, are all a part of the commoditization of women that is under way. Santosh Desai, author and columnist, puts it aptly: “the privileging of desire, and its presentation of a self-justifying need helps create a climate where all that is desired becomes an object that can be brought through money or overwhelmed through power”. Take item numbers for example. Many women claim that they are perfectly within their rights to show off their bodies for they are simply exercising their freedom. As true as this is, what we overlook is precisely the need for such songs, which caters to a male audience. The angle of the camera at it travels over the female body, is in no way asserting the right of the women; on the contrary it is treating her like an object to be consumed. My point is that it is not the act itself, or even its repercussions that should be analysed here, but rather its need and source of origin. If we try and see why we are doing it, we understand that it is not free will, but a manipulation on a deep, subconscious level that makes women themselves participate in a campaign that dehumanises them. What else explains the reduction of women to their genitals, the virginity that is vehemently preserved in the name of the honour of the entire community!

For a large section of the people today, and that includes both women and men, women still belong within the folds of her veil or purdah, or is to be deified in the temples. The more she assert her individuality and aspirations, the greater is the backlash and the attempt to subjugate her. The society is getting transformed, but without the simultaneous change in the attitude to accommodate those developments.

I think unequal gender relations find many other, seemingly normal and conventional, outlets. Taking her husband’s name, moving in with his family, wearing proudly the symbols of her bondage, the bangles, the sindoor, telling the world that she is the property of another man, automatically shouldering the responsibility of child-rearing because she bears the child; all of these and more should be rebelled against. I am not talking here of destabilising the family, which I do believe is sacrosanct. However, I question the double standards that requires the rite of ‘kanyadaan’ in case of a girl, and does not treat her as an independent agency willingly entering a marital union.

More often than not, a woman is viewed as a womb, an instrument of reproduction; bearing children is her destiny. The walls of her house are her universe. She is trained, for the service of the man. She has always been a mother and a wife, or at the other end of the spectrum, a prostitute. There is no middle ground, no place for her to assert her independence.

So where do you start?