It all started with my friend (even though an engineering student has a queer interest in history and monuments) who often bombards me with questions. This time, however, the discussion was not a simple question and answer but an intense debate and even though we exchanged over 3,500 words on Whatsapp message (which is almost the size of an big article) we could not reach a conclusion. Despite the fact that there was nothing much left to debate about, neither of us was ready to back off.
This made me realize multiple things – it is difficult to explain history to students of non-history backgrounds. They have their own understanding of history based on more populist notions (not necessarily wrong as history is subjective but, of course, quite uncomfortable for people who are trained in this discipline). Secondly, it is difficult to explain the academic understanding of power, gender, patriarchy etc. in layman’s language without them cherry picking terms, or misunderstanding them. Similarly, it is difficult for us to understand simplistic ideas of the above mentioned notions. Thirdly, I realize the futility of debating on issues related to patriarchy unless there is a common plane on which the discourse needs to be placed.
At the end of the day, the purpose of the debate is reduced to outdoing each other, me through using academic jargon which makes no sense to the other person, and other going on rhetorical mode to express the sentimentality hidden in the issue that the academic people are, supposedly, bereft of. In that case the debate becomes an articulation of lifeless ideas expressed through a show of language and the victory eventually lies in the force of language and its articulation rather than the argument itself. Lastly, it made me realize how so subtly, through our daily existence, our daily activities and subconsciously through our ideas and language we are keeping patriarchy alive. Patriarchy is present in the small nuances, small steps and each word spoken from our mouth as it is keeping the discourse of patriarchy alive.
Going back to our debate, the issue that was raised by my friend was regarding Jauhar (a practice where women of the royal Rajput households would emulate themselves in order to avoid capture when being defeated in a war). According to him, Jauhar represented a choice of women for choosing her honor over her life. According to him, Jauhar is a bold decision made my women to save themselves from getting humiliated by alien forces. He even termed this bold act by women a symbol of “women empowerment”. I, somehow, was very surprised and disturbed by this question and a long debate ensued between us. The following was my answer to him (I don’t claim to be right, I am just offering something to ponder about).
Jauhar is a very problematic concept for many reasons. Firstly, we live in a world where our dignity and honor is more important than our life. Question arises whose honor, whose dignity? Our honor and dignity or that of the paterfamilias (the male head of the family of household) who own our sexuality; or the patriarchal family whose sense of honor is related to the honor of women. Thus, while the enemies consider women’s sexuality as a site for negotiation and manipulation and an easy victim, the patriarchal family try to assert their control over women’s sexuality. This dilemma over women’s sexuality as a site of control by two opposing but patriarchal forces encourage women’s abduction and rape on the side of perpetrator; and practices like Jauhar and Sati on the side of the defendants.
Question is, where is the agency of women in this whole episode? Their role is to imbibe the structure unconsciously garbed in the facade of traditions and the rhetorical glory associated with Jauhar.
Another question to be asked is why is women’s sexuality such a great matter of concern that even their life becomes trivial compared to it. Thirdly, as Foucault points out, there are some legitimate locus and sites within which sexuality is defined and there is always a sphere of illegitimate sexuality (in this case the invaders) which is detested and sexuality is relocated to the domain of the household.
Jauhar is the attempt to relocate or restrict the locus of sexuality within the patriarchal domain. Thus, what we see is patriarchy at work. It is the structure that we follow unconsciously. The seemingly brave attempt is actually an accepted means of exploitation.
My friend then answered back, elaborating how Jauhar was a bold act as the queens and other royal women chose honor over life and explained that the decision was quite rational considering that the possibility of rape was overarching if they chose not to die. He even drew an analogy between women choosing to commit Jauhar to protect their body and the choice of the soldier to protect his territory from the invaders.
I can see that in a different parlance, he seemed to have a point though I wasn’t appreciative of his approach. So, I tried to deconstruct the psyche that underlies such choices and answered –
We seem to be talking about the so called “bold act” which seems to denote “women empowerment” but what we don’t seem to realize is that her action was borne out of her helplessness. The moment you glorify the action, you glorify the edifice on which it stands. A woman committing Jauhar is simply conforming to the structure and playing her part as an “ideal” wife, “ideal” woman.
Why is rape worse than getting killed? Why is sexuality related to “honor” that gets diluted or lost in the sexual act? The very expression “giving her body to the murderer or invader” denotes that women don’t have a say on their own body and it could be taken by others be it her husband or any invader. A soldier is protecting an external domain, not an internalized domain, that is a woman’s body. Padmini did what may be practical in that situation but that doesn’t justify the regressive institutionalization and glorification of Jauhar because the structural and moral compass of the domain is problematic.
My friend tried to reason out the patriarchal structure as a natural evolution of humankind. This argument needs to be elaborated because of the scientific (or pseudo scientific, you may decide) reasoning he used to justify the need for safety of women and hence, male dominance.
Maybe she was depending on male kin for her safety because at that time (today also) males play the role of a protector. These tasks are divided on the basis of built of a male’s body which is a result of a evolution. There is nothing patriarchal here. Maybe sexuality is assigned to honor but again that is an evolutionary thing. Among chimpanzees, males shows dominance on other females or males have forceful sex with eldest female. In humans, forcefully having sex is identified as rape because of the consciousness which is again result of evolution. Thus, sexuality is identified as honor.
You are questioning that killing oneself is better than being violated sexually. And at that same time you are questioning woman’s right on her body (that it can be taken away by invader or husband). Aren’t your statements contradictory? I think most of the women would give priority to their sexuality because it is present in them subconsciously. (Reason- women are choosy about their partners because they make one egg in one month, it means that the egg must be invested wisely. Also fertilization of egg means she has to devote a large chunk of her life in developing that egg. Thus, evolution has made women choose a male partner carefully).
Mind you evolution is not moralistic in nature. There is something called nude makeup, which is made to create an illusion that no makeup has been applied. Similarly our cultures and continuous performances of rituals and traditions try to make the structure look eternal and inevitable. No matter how strongly entrenched the idea of sexual dimorphism may appear to us, to a large extent it is a social construct since masculinity and femininity are sociological nomenclatures not biological.
The sexual division of labor, according to Fredrick Engels, has been a determining factor in alienating the means and ownership of production from women leading to the “world historic defeat of women“. Among chimpanzees there is no taboo on sexuality neither does the concept of sexual ethics work there. The forceful sex among chimpanzees denotes a power structure which works for all creatures. So patriarchy is a power structure and rape is an assertion of that power structure. The rhetoric of sexuality has a great propinquity with the similitude of signification of power structure and assertion of masculinity on one hand and an absence of polemical epistemology throughout the whole history for women.
The juxtaposition of sexuality with honor is not just a simple performative act of parole but a signification of morbid taxonomies based on the perceived site of resemblance between sexuality and honor. In this case, the site of similitude lies in our cultural background and social moors where we can’t separate women’s imbibed and inherited power structure and their agency. When the locus of women’s sexuality is infringed, decided and dictated by men, it no longer remains the decision of women and becomes their series of accepted judgments. The structure is further problematized when it is institutionalized and thus, women loose the last fulcrum of their autonomy
In simple words, I wished to say that we are using honor in relation with sexuality where the relation itself underlies a structure. Rape is not defined in the arena of women only. In Sanskrit, the word balatkar means by force (not necessarily a sexual connotation), and the way we have ascribed the meaning of honor, purity, self value and values of society to the word (which is now used to denote rape) and hence, to rape has a lot to do with cultural setup and it thus, becomes in essence a social construct.
Again, the question is not about a woman’s ability to choose her partner but the institutionalization of the system that has modified choice into obligation. And again we are coming to the same question; honor, values and traditions of choice of sexual partner are all part of human life. That means they are a part of human existence but by institutionalizing Sati and Jauhar we are making culture and sexuality anterior to human existence. They are part of human existence but why should they become greater than the human existence itself which they are meant to serve in the first place.
To this, he again returned to his point that Jauhar is indeed women empowerment where power lies in her ability to make the choice (of committing Jauhar).
Are you defining empowerment as the choice of a women to die for one patriarchal structure over another patriarchal structure?
The question is not why she can’t refuse to sleep with the “enemy” but more pertinently – why does she need to die for it? Is honor more valuable than life, if not, then the whole question is nullified. Secondly, you are repressing sexuality to its “licit” domain. Thirdly, you are initiating the bio politics of sexuality where the only alternative to “licit” sexuality is through repression.
Power structure is not a conscious force, it acts as a big brother in being an invisible eye and hand. While Sati has a range of economic, religious, social causation, Jauhar is exclusively defined under the umbrella of valor. Where is the choice for women – in her refusal to be with a murderer. But mind you, Jauhar is not an individual and isolated phenomena, it is a social act deeply entrenched in propriety. Jauhar was committed in a group, in large numbers collectively. With a procedure in place for the enactment of the rite and the glorification of emulation for others, it’s benediction of “martyrs” and “implicatory condemnation” of those who didn’t conform to it, creates a space for imbibing the structure and narrows the path for digressions. The psyche and thinking process is altered through cultural devices and deployment of sexuality.
Dying for sexuality, in itself, poses a problem with regard to the sanctity of the ethics that provoke it. By rendering the woman unable to protect herself, how can we legitimize in her choosing death. It perpetuates the imagery of a victim for the woman, which then becomes a site over which other forces confront each other. It further implicates repression and regressive protection as well as contracts the sphere of action for women. It is sheer lack of empowerment for women – the inability to defend herself, inability to enforce her refusal to either sides, inability of being an active agent rather than an implication of the course of events. You have rendered her ahistorical by placing her on the realm of implication, where is power and where is empowerment here?
Applauding her choice to not sleep with the invader – and what is at stake – her life. Choices are relative. Identification and resistance to an “external enemy” is the locus in which authoritarian panegyric structure evolves. But how come human life is externalized to threat of life rather than internalizing the right to live.
This debate is never ending and from this point, the discussion took a different direction and a new topic was picked up. What I realized, though, is how we still imbibe and internalize the patriarchal biases so much so that we start identifying ourselves and everything around us through the social constructs imposed upon our identity. However, as I said earlier, in order to make the discourse possible, a unified plane is required which is not possible considering the varied social experiences, different epistemology, subjectivity of ideologies etc. Deconstruction of patriarchy can only be initiated in the micro level as it is through language and culture and ideas that patriarchy reinforces itself in subtle yet dominating ways.