Sunday, March 22, 2009

Gender and Culture - Assingments for evaluation

Choose from any one of the activities below and respond with a 2000 word essay. You can also select any other topic that relates to the course in order to submit your assignment. Please discuss with the instructor before proceeding with the latter option.

* What is the specific relationship between the concepts “gender” and “culture”, and why are they relevant in understanding the history of women and of women’s movements in India?
* List one or two debates or controversies in recent times and examine how the culture question enters the picture vis a vis these.
* Examine the trajectory of the relationship between the personal and the political in feminist thinking.
* Examine the space of your college and look at the various ways in which this space is constructed by and in turn constructs gender relations. Think about the spaces that men and women occupy at different times. Then also think of how these spaces are not just gendered but also classed.
* Examine the cases where there has been violence against romantic couples belonging to different castes or religions. Think about why these couples are seen to be a threat to ‘Indian culture’.
* Track the recent Pink Chaddi campaign as the response to the assault on women in a Mangalore pub. How successful do you think this campaign is? What are the limitations of this campaign?
* Using any one example comment on the nature of the women’s movement’s engagement with law.
* Read this interview with Ruth Manorama who is the founder of the National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW, founded in 1987): Meena Kandaswamy Interviews Ruth Manorama. What is the critique of Ruth Manorama about the ‘mainstream women’s movement’? How are the community and caste identities understood in the interview?


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Module VII - Another Reading for Radhika's Class

Chatterjee, Partha. 'The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question.'

(Please Click on the essay to download the pdf version)

Module 7 (Mar 12)

Aesthetic Representation I
P. Radhika

(Click here for the PDF version of the module)

This module will deal with the understanding of aesthetic practice, rather cultural practice, through the lens of the political.


Cultural Practice and the Social

The relationship between cultural practice and the social has been variously posed in literary criticism. Let us understand this relation through a reading of a short poem, “Chupulu” by Jayaprabha. See the link GP attachments\Chupulu.doc

There might be two kinds of responses, one that sees the poem as unworthy of even being seen as a work of art. It is not aesthetic enough because it does not have complex rhyme scheme and is further ‘contaminated’ by the social. This is one of the dominant criticisms that sees the aesthetic as a pure object, untouched by the social and historical. It stresses on the formal qualities of a text. These critics would argue that we need to understand a cultural text only for its aesthetic value.

If you want to read more about the idea of an aesthetic, see its definition and history in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy at

The other response to the poem, made by say feminist critics, would see the value of the text not for its aesthetics but for its social relevance. It would say that the poem should not be defined by aesthetic standards of beauty and form but because it discusses a social problem that women face. Some strands of this criticism would dismiss the need to understand the aesthetic contours of a text at all.

I suggest that we need to understand the relationship between cultural practice and the social in a far more complex manner. We need to move away from the first response that emphasizes the aesthetic to the exclusion of the social. We need to bring in the social however not to the exclusion of the aesthetic (Response 2) but through a re-definition of the aesthetic. We will attend to the social but through the cultural contours. I say cultural contours and not aesthetic contours because as we will see below the notion of aesthetic carries a set of connotations that we need to depart from.

Culture and the Political

Conventionally politics is seen as outside of the aesthetic. However, in practice politics has always been tied to aesthetic practice. If we look at the term ‘aesthetic’ itself, we will find that it carries connotations of culture that mark it as different from, for instance, popular culture.

See and analyse the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip: GP attachments\Calvin & Hobbes.doc How will you read the comic-strip text in conjunction with the comic-strip?

Historically, there has always been a disjunction between popular art and high art, what is deemed to be an aesthetic object. We need to however mark departures from that binary, just as we need to move away from the binary between the social and the aesthetic approaches.

We will read the socio-political through cultural practice in a way that will account for both the socio-political and the particular representational histories that the cultural text is a part of. In this module we will examine the production of gender—ideas of masculinity and femininity—one, in the period of colonialism and two, in contemporary times

2. Colonialism and the Production of the Feminine

Let us look at ideas of femininity, as well as masculinity that were produced in the colonial period through the following set of paintings:

Understanding Femininity

Slide 1: Oxford Dictionary definition on the social construction of gender

The central idea conveyed by this definition is that femininity is not an inherent quality of womanhood but is a set of meanings produced and organized in a culture, something that you discussed in Module 1 (Refer to Module 1 Notes)

However, it is not as though femininity is a set of rules in the social realm, which we simply imbibe or are socialized into. We need to think about gender, i.e., femininity and masculinity as performance, where performance has to be understood as a two-way process: It is through the performance of femininity, that the Ideal Feminine comes into being just as the performance is also influenced (though not fully determined) by the normative idea of the Feminine. In the words of Butler:

Performativity cannot be understood outside of a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained repetition of norms. And this repetition is not performed by a subject; this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject. This iterability implies that 'performance' is not a singular 'act' or event, but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance. (Butler 1993, 95).

For more, see extracts from Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler by Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, London, 1993,

In trying to understand how the Ideal Feminine comes into being, let us probe how femininity is constructed on one of the sites of culture—that of painting. In our analyses of femininity, it is not useful to merely ask whether this is a ‘good’ image or ‘bad’ image of femininity but to think about how the images we see are tied to ideas such as nationalism, modernity and tradition circulating within the context. Such an understanding might complicate a commonsensical notion of agency that we sometimes use.

What I will attempt below is a working out of the relationship between femininity and modernity, nationalism and tradition in the Indian context:

Let me clarify the concept of modernity before we see the paintings. One of the ways in which modernity has been understood can be seen in the division between traditional (Asian societies) vs. modern (Western societies), where the former is seen as regressive and backward and the latter as progressive and developed.

Another understanding of modernity put forward by post-colonial scholars refers to the ways of thinking, institutional structures, changes which were sought to be brought about in India, beginning in the 19th century. One such idea that gets re-formed is that of femininity. Please recollect from Module 1, the relationship between woman and culture that came to be in the colonial period (Refer to Module 1 Notes). Let me reiterate the point by looking at two arguments that speak about this change (Please refer to the prescribed essays by Partha Chatterjee and Susie Tharu posted on the gender and culture blog):

Partha Chatterjee’s argument:

The confrontation between colonial and nationalist discourse
The production of inside/home/spiritual x outside/world/material
Woman as the bearer of tradition

Respectable Indian woman vs. Excessively Western woman
Respectable Indian woman vs. Working class/Lower caste woman

Susie Tharu’s argument:

The de-legitimisation of the eroticism of Sadir and a production of a femininity which gets embodied in the new cultural form of Bharatnatyam.

Now, let us look at some late 19th-early 20th century paintings and place it besides Partha Chatterjee’s argument to understand the production of femininity at that time. Before we begin the analysis, I suggest that we should understand femininity not merely within a masculinity x femininity ‘binary’ [subordination/ oppressor-oppressed model]. Instead let us think of this relationship through ‘difference’, further not merely the masculinity x femininity relationship but also differences in femininity itself.

I will argue how the paintings present a more contestatory model of the hegemonic. This is not to posit a ‘plurality’ but to provide a more complex understanding of the hegemonic itself.

Link to ppt: GP attachments\CULTURE & FEMININITYfinal.PPT

See the following Ravivarma paintings:

Slide 2: Hindu Maratha Lady
Slide 3: Portrait of a Lady
Slide 4: Gypsy Family

Now see the following Kalighat paintings:

Slide 5: Portrait of a Woman
Slide 6: Respectable Woman Dressing
Slide 7: Fisherwoman
Slide 8: Courtesan trampling on her Lover

If we read the paintings of both Ravivarma and Kalighat, we get Chatterjee’s argument about a valourisation of a ‘respectable femininity’ differentiated along class lines. Also, there is a valourisation of tradition (and mythology as we will see later) in Ravivarma’s paintings. If we look at the Kalighat paintings there is a condemnation of promiscuity, association of lower class/caste woman as promiscuous and degenerate just as with the gypsy woman who is emaciated, poverty stricken with many dirty children.

Now see the following Abhanindranath paintings:

Slide 9: Gita-Govinda
Slide 10: Sita in Captivity

The paintings of Abhanindranath Tagore too seem to emphasise a representation of mythological characters:

Is this a representation of reality? Or is it a mode by which femininity gets constructed?

The questions for these painters in the 19th century were: how do we represent (=show) Indian femininity? Who will represent (=representative of) Indian femininity? Additionally and importantly, the question was also what should be the content of Indian art?

If we look for an answer to these questions through these paintings, we find there are both similarities and differences among them. Though all the paintings represent ‘respectable femininity’ through the middle class woman and that which is not respectable/representable of Indianness through the lower class woman—an equation that was becoming dominant at that time—these paintings are also very different from one another. The woman that we see in Ravivarma is voluptuous and full bodied; something that we also see in the Kalighat painting. But the Ravivarma painting seems to be more aesthetic, more sensuous that the Kalighat painting where the women are full-bodied but not ‘sensuous’. The manner in which they sit is not typically feminine. The Kalighat painting, which was a satire on Westernised Bengali middle class society, not only disapproves of the courtesan but also the degenerate babu, the middle class Bengali male. If we look at Abhanindranath’s paintings, the woman is skinny. The emphasis is not on her body but on spirituality.

If we look at the debates which were going on in the late 19th century, till even the 1910s, Ravivarma symbolized the essence of Indian art, both in his depiction of mythological characters and in his realist representation of people (unlike the two-dimensional Kalighat painting). But with the rise and consolidation of a nationalist movement after the 1910s, Abhanindranath displaced Ravivarma as the one to represent Indian art with his emphasis on the spiritual and the underplaying of the erotic and sensuous woman.

See Slide 11: Ravivarma’s ‘Arjuna and Subhadra’

Find below one of the criticisms of Ravivarma’s ‘Arjuna and Subhadra’ where Subhadra’s portrayal is condemned:

Not every scene is fit for a a country in which that posture is held to be ill-bred, every home contains a picture of a fat woman lying full length on the floor and writing a letter on a lotus leaf! As if a sight that would outrage the decorum in actuality, could be beautiful in imagination! In a country in which romantic emotion is never allowed to show itself in public, pictures of Arjuna and Subhadra abound. (Thakurta The Making of a New Indian Art)

This undermining of the sensuous and the erotic in the representation of woman is something that Tharu and Lalita’s essay discuss. This finally culminates in the transfiguration of the woman as motherland.

Slide 12-Slide 15: Bharatmata paintings

In this debate the Kalighat painting was marginalized and was never seen as worthy of representing Indian art, either in the late 19th century or later. It surfaced briefly in the 1920s when Abhanindranath appropriated it to showcase authentic India through her folk. However by then the genre itself had died.

I want to argue that though Abhanindranath became representative of nationalist art, it was not an uncontested position. There were arguments for Ravivarma that pointed out that sensuousness and eroticism were part of Indian tradition.

More important, there was a further reframing of Ravivarma in popular art when ads, calenders and cinema—the classic example being the courtesan in Phalke—used his imaging of the woman.

Slide 16: Ad for Baby Food with Ravivarma’s ‘Birth of Shakuntala’

We see above how Ravivarma’s paintings get appropriated and travel in an entirely different circuit, thus skewing the hegemonic x marginal binary.

I want to finally leave you with a few contemporary images of femininity. What is the relationship between women and tradition posed in them?

Slide 17: Nalini Malani’s ‘Rethinking Ravivarma-1’ which is a take on
Slide 18: Ravivarma’s ‘Galaxy of Musicians’
Slide 19: Nalini Malani’s ‘Rethinking Ravivarma-2’
Slide 20: Karnataka Chief Minister’s Defence of the Beauty Contest

3. Masculinity and Kannada Identity Politics

In this section, we will look at the construction of masculinity, as well as femininity, in the following songs that have been visualised around Rajkumar:

Naavaduva Nudiye Kannada Nudi
Jenina Holeyo Halina Maleyo
Naaniruvude Nimagagi, Naadiruvudu Namagagi
Huttidare Kannada Nadal Huttabeku
Janarinda naanu mele bandhe/Janaranne nanna devarende

Popular Cinema and Politics

We need to understand popular cinema and music as linked to politics, not necessarily in terms of power and party formation, as with MGR and NTR but in terms of formations of identity and subjectivity. One such question that is central to the Kannada region is that of Kannada identity. I draw on Madhava Prasad’s articles to delineate the construction of Kannada identity

When we think about questions of identity in the Indian context, in a sense, we can see national identity as the first articulation of identity-self determination with its liberal slogan of universal freedom and equality. Kannada identity and other regional identities are seen as not universal but local/cultural, both for its supporters and its opposition. However we need to see Kannada identity as also a modern identity.

Kannada Identity-A Modern Identity

A modern Kannada identity has its beginnings with colonialism, with the attempt to modernize Kannada by missionaries, colonial administration (dictionaries) and Kannada literary scholars like B.M.Srikantiah.

During the phase of Indian nationalism we find Kannada writers who were trying to reconstruct histories of the region. One such writer was Galaganatha who wrote historical novels that celebrated the glorious period of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Subsequently, the kingdom was ravaged by the Muslims thus marking a slow decline in the Kannada land. Another such writer was Alur Venkata Rao who wrote Karnataka Gatha Vaibhava. Here Kannada identity is parallel with Indian identity in constructing itself in opposition to Muslim rule. Modern print literature can also be seen as constructing this identity, not so much through content but in form.

When we arrive at the period of post-independence in Karnataka, we need to mark the unification of the Mysore state in 1956, which then came to be called Karnataka. During this phase, it is cinema that becomes the site of construction of Kannada identity. In what ways this occurs is something we will discuss below.

Before we move into that discussion, I would like to merely point to the phase of globalization, where the focus has shifted to the Kannada NRI, evidenced in films like America America. There is, however, a simultaneous assertion of cultural identity, seen in the change of the name Bangalore to Bengaluru or in the formation of new vocal Kannada organizations like the Kannada Rakshana Vedike.

Stars in South Indian Cinema: Representing Linguistic National Identity

When we ask the question of how stars emerge, some of the common responses are that cinema captivates the people and the illiterate masses mistake the reel for the real. Let me provide below a different reading.

We need to situate the emergence of the star phenomenon in the formation of a Kannada identity. This regional/linguistic identity formation is to be seen as parallel to the formation of the nation. After the initial debate on whether we should have a federation of nationalities like the Soviet Union or a nation with a Hindu state, what was chosen was the latter but within a secular model. Thus, we have the idea of a ‘nationalism’, as a complement to which ‘regionalism’ or ‘regional nationalism’ is constructed and gains meaning. It is within this contradiction of nationalist identity, as part of the political-ideological history of India that we need to situate the importance of South Indian cinema and the rise of stars like ‘Rajkumar’, as a site for an articulation of a regional nationalism. This is a particular link between politics and cinema in the Southern states that is absent in the North.

The symbolic importance that Rajkumar held was evident when the Gokak agitation, arguing for the primacy of Kannada in education, got a massive push when he joined it in the 1980s. Hence we need to see Rajkumar’s task as that of political representation, whether party or not is unimportant.

Let us see how Rajkumar becomes entrusted with this task. Rajkumar who was called Muthuraju and acted in Bedara Kannappa in 1953 was a significant figure in the theatre company itself. He held a symbolic significance and was known for his versatile acting.
With cinema, there were both, an attention to the actor’s presence, his face, his physical details and the fact that the same image was being seen across a linguistic region. In Ranadheera Kanteerava (1960), for example, when Rajkumar says, “Geleya Kannadigare Swagathavu Nimage” he is not only showing Karnataka’s past glory but also interpellating and appealing to the sense of a Kannada belonging. This sense of a linguistic community was built around the cinema. It was not as though film-makers and actors exploited the power of the cinematic image or that the popular hero influenced the people. It was instead the former that were responding to the latter.

This is the rise of the star system—the doubling of the actor’s persona, where the persona that survives is greater than the individual appearance of the actor. It is not that the people believe that the star is superhuman but that they appreciate his versatile acting. One actor is thus given this primary status and the others are accorded a secondary status.

Initially, fans’ associations involved themselves with social welfare activities and fans would imitate the star but increasingly the star held a symbolic value. It was as though the fan was acting in the name of the star positioned as a leader, something that is taken on but also thrust upon the star. This is the shift in the nature of relationship from the bhakta to the abhimani.

There were new developments in the cinematic space too with the rise of the star: the comedian was subordinated to the hero and became identified with the fan. In the relationship between the hero and heroine, if the earlier father-figure represented traditional and patriarchal values, now the hero embodied new patriarchal values: he was both the lover and the paternal figure preaching morals. His ‘love for his sister’ whom he should protect became a new and important theme. Also, the hero now transcends the family to protect the new community that he is forging. All these then become settings for the new project of political representation.

In the manner in which the star system gets organized, it is the male stars who represent linguistic identity and the women become ‘exchangeable objects’ as it were. This is evidenced in the fixity of actors on the one hand and the movement of actresses on the other hand.

Thus, changes within and outside of the diegetic space prepare South Indian cinema and the stars within for a new task of representation. In the absence of the regional state’s articulation of Kannada nationalism post-independence and where the regional state is the mirror of the centre, cinema becomes the site of articulating Kannada nationalism. In this context, the songs that we are going to hear and watch are important as the site of the production of Kannada identity.

Construction of Masculinity and Kannada identity

Let us try to examine the construction of Kannada identity and ideas of masculinity-femininity within through a reading of the lyrics and watching the visualizations of the songs. Please refer to the link to the lyrics and translation of the songs: GP attachments\Rajkumar songs.doc


Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". New York: Routledge, 1993.

Madhava Prasad “Cinema as a site of Nationalist Identity Politics in Karnataka.” Journal of Karnataka Studies, No. 1, November 2003-April 2004.

-----. “Cine-Politics: On the Political Significance of Cinema in South India.” Journal of the Moving Image. No. 1, 1999.

Partha Chatterjee. “Nationalist Resolution of the Woman Question.” Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. Eds. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989.

Susie Tharu and K.Lalita. “Empire, Nation and the Literary Text.” Interrogating Modernity: Culture and Colonialism in India. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1993.

Tapati Guha Thakurta. The Making of a New Indian Art: artists, aesthetics, and nationalism in Bengal, c. 1850-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Module VII

Following is the reading for the next Thursday's (12 Feb. 2009) class. The class will be engaged by Radhika. Click on the following title to download the pdf version of the reading.

Tharu, Susie, and K. Lalita. ‘Empire, Nation and the Literary Text’

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Module VI - Gender, Community, and Caste

Following is the link to the Module V which will be taken up in Saturday's class by Rekha Pappu. Please click on the link to get the pdf version of the module.

Sebastian, Mrinalini. 'Gender, Community, and Caste'.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Gender and Technology: Module 4


Let us begin with three statements of facts and reflect upon them:
1. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ninety per cent of the paintings are about women, and ninety percent of the painters are men.
2. In Star Trek, the space ship is a mother ship that is guided by Captain Kirk.
3. George Eliot, the famous author of novels like Middlemarch and Mill on The Floss is a woman, who wrote under a man’s name.

These sound like disjointed bits of trivia, and indeed, are probably facts that are all too familiar to us. But what joins them together? What are the common implications that these three statements are suggesting to us? We need to see, that the theme that runs common in all the three statements is that they are all about women and their relationship with technology in some form. Let us look at all the three sentences in detail and see if we can work out the implications:

In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ninety per cent of the paintings are about women, and ninety percent of the painters are men.

Does this imply that women are less artistic than men? Surely, the question is no; in fact, men who take to the arts, are often perceived as feminine and that arts and culture are in the domain of the women. We, of course, can make a certain historical reading and suggest that art as a profession belonged to the realm of the public and hence women did not have access to these arenas – the choice to be a female painter, or artist, or writer. And that is indeed a valid reading of such a statement. However, deeper than that is the relationship that women had with technology. We often forget that even arts when they first were taken up institutionally, were techniques and technologies. That historically, the art of painting – which was indeed a technology that had its heyday in Renaissance Europe – was also a technology, and one that was unavailable to women for a very long time. It is only when these technologies get superseded by newer technological inventions that they become rare, private, and feminine enough to be granted to women.

However, that does not mean that women did not have any relationship with technology. What the statement draws our attention to is that women were indeed the major subject of technologised cultural productions – as mythical creatures, as objects of erotic representation, as monsters, as demons, as beasts, as goddesses and as sometimes representative of abject and frail human conditions, women have been almost obsessively at the centre of all technology imagination. Even now, when we look around us, at billboards, and advertisements, we constantly see the messages of consumption and selling, as etched on the body of a woman; even in instances when the product being sold or the body of the woman have nothing in particular.

And Virginia Woolf draws our attention to exactly that. At the Ox-bridge library that she is in, she discovers a long list of “women and…”[i] and then reflects, “Why does Samuel Butler say, ‘Wise men never say what they think of women’? ‘Wise men never say anything else apparently.” (Chapter 2, just before footnote 3)

Let us remain with these thoughts for a moment then: that there is, when we talk of technology and technologised production, a certain gendered relationship; that women did not always have access to acts of production and control over technology, and that they were obsessively the subjects of technology and technologised production; and as an aside, that what we today understand as ‘arts’ or ‘artistic’ was historically in the domains of technology and science and that such shifts happen due to a series of socio-political and econo-cultural events which we will think of sometime later. And now let us look at the second statement:

In Star Trek, the space ship is a mother ship that is guided by Captain Kirk.

If you throw back your mind to some of the most iconic and cult representations of technology in almost any of your favourite sci-fi movies, you might realize, that most of these representations are women. Starting all the way from the movie Metropolis, where you have the demonized robot Maria, to Star Trek, where the mother ship is indeed, a mother; to Lara Croft Tomb Raider to the ghost in the machine – the mother board, the mother ship, the robots and the systems that need to be controlled and tamed, are always women or appropriating the female form or feminine in nature. In the slight variations from the law, you have an occasional character like Sonny in the movie I, Robot, but there too, we also have the feminine V.I.K.I. who turns out to be the actual villain of the story. We need to look into why, our imaginations of technology – and we are not looking at technologised production right now, but technology itself – are so gendered in nature. Why is it that we always have a particular idea of technology as feminine, as irrational, as demonic, as something that needs to be tamed and controlled, preferably by men?

Isn’t it a strange thing that on the one hand, we identify science as the domain of the masculine and the male, and the technologies that govern science as feminine in nature? We are going to perhaps complicate our first ideas about the gendered nature of technology now: We are going to say that it is not as if the gendered biases or construction of technology are limited to the cultural production and technologised arts but to the very imaginations of technology itself. When we talk of even our daily electrical gadgets – computers, laptops, cellphones, ipods, wiis we catch ourselves talking about them in a feminine form – objects of consumption, objects we have an eroticized relationship with, and objects which need certain control and mastery. Now keeping these in mind, let us go to the third statement that we began with:

George Eliot, the famous author of novels like Middlemarch and Mill on The Floss is a woman, who wrote under a man’s name.

It sounds alien to our ears, used to listening to the Arundhati Roys and Jhumpa Leharis of our time, to imagine that there was a time when women were not allowed to write; and if they were allowed to write, they were allowed to write only a particular kind of things, and that even if they were allowed to write, they were not necessarily allowed to become published authors within a publishing industry market. It seem perhaps funny, to imagine that there was a time when women tried on the names of men to write; just like it must have seemed funny, to somebody in the eighteenth century, to think that women would have to wear men’s clothes in order to enter the professional world. Once we remove the ‘funny’ quotient from this particular statement, what remains is the hard fact that technologies are a part of the culture industry – there are markets, there are audiences and consumers, there is an economics of visibility and distribution which is at work. And as with other technologies, for a very long time, the technologies of print and writing, also kept women as either the audiences to their products or the subject of their production, but very rarely at the centre, as creators and masters of those technologies. So that, when women wanted to write, not mere romances, but larger fictions, they had to take on the guise of men and write without their own names and identities.
To go back to the question of technology, then, we also need to look at the gender and technology question as not simply a question of art and expression, but also that of economic forces that shape these ideas and reinforce certain kind of images within us.

Reading 1: (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 3 available at )

Let us take for example, the case study that Virginia Woolf gives us, about Judith Shakespeare – William Shakespeare’s imaginary sister.
(Please refer to the text and addresses the following questions on technology and gender relationships:)
1. Why is technology always thought of as more easily accessible to men than women? Is it in the inherent nature of technology that it makes itself available to men or is there an entire social construct to legitimize only some kinds of usages of technology as valid? The story of Judith Shakespeare that Woolf draws, addresses these questions quite effectively. It also points out how, the question of livelihood and gender is also closely linked in with our understanding of technology.
2. How does this masculine imagination of technology change the very nature of the person who controls technology? For example, a man who is not very good at different technologies would be considered effeminate or not masculine enough. On the contrary, men who are more adept at certain kinds of technologies are also considered not male enough. Similarly, women who enter into certain kinds of technology oriented roles, will always be looked upon as ‘women in a man’s world’ or sometimes as ‘one of the boys’; gendered with masculinity, beyond her own control. Extending that logic, women have their own technologies and women who do not take to those are also labeled as aberrant or deviant. We are now trying to posit the idea that it is not as if being a man or a woman precedes technology; but in fact, the socio-political gendered contexts within which technologies operate, indeed create us as men and women, masculine and feminine, in our access to technologies, in our role within the technology paradigm, and our ability to control certain kinds of technologies.
3. The common sense understanding that technologies follow gender – in books like Why Men won’t listen and women can’t read maps; or in bio-deterministic assumptions that boys should be good at numbers and women should be good with languages – needs to be questioned. There is a small (and perhaps very clever) claptrap that comes into being when we try and dismantle these notions. When we question, as Woolf does, any of the tenets of technology, at the level of the imaginary, the arguments that are posited against it are at the level of material technologies. Let’s take that example of the very popular book title, ‘Why Men won’t listen and Women Can’t read maps”. If we were to suggest, keeping the technology and gender relationship in mind, that the maps reading exercise, requires a certain kind of masculine identity, which women are not encouraged to perform and hence, even though they might have the capacity to read maps, they are never trained or indeed discriminated against if they can read maps, the argument that is given to us is that in a given sample, certain percentage of female participants responded in an identifiable pattern which is their inability to read map. The evidence presented is at the level of majority acts, of biological and neural research – research that presumes that technology is a neutral tool to which the brain responds without any kind of external influence; research that further presumes that the brain is an autonomous independent entity that innately responds to certain kinds of technologised stimuli. We need to avoid this kind of oppositional dialectic between the scientific and the cultural, and perhaps learn to understand that science is indeed a social construct and arises out of different cultural practices, and that culture is not merely in the realms of the imaginary but also has very material and significant consequences.

We have so far deduced a few things:
1. That technology and gender are not mutually exclusive domains of understanding but that technology, in its very conception, is gendered.
2. That different technologies are made accessible to certain kinds of gendered behaviours through complex socio-cultural and economic processes.
3. That technologies are not neutral, and indeed, in their imaginary (and sometimes material) construct, demand a masculine or a feminine identity on the part of the person they are interacting with.
4. That technologised productions are indeed about representation and their politics but they are also about the politics of access and livelihood and create a relationship between genders; where one is produced and the other is the producer.
5. That the relationship between gender and technology is one of transactions, where, technology is often treated as the feminine, which would then need to be tamed, domesticated or exorcised of its excesses, and brought under the control of Man with a capital M.
It is with these ideas in the back of our mind that we need to now look at a new relationship between technology and gender. Let us look at how technologies indeed become feminized – not only in their representations and access, but in their economic development and proliferation.

Reading 2 (Jennifer Light. When Computers Were Women. Available at

As with the earlier part of the module, let us again begin with looking at three examples, but this time in the very specific realms of digital technologies and computers. We shall go through three exercises and then see if we can bind them together to talk about a different dimension to explore the gendered nature and the gendering role of technologies.
1. Starting with the Father: If you paid attention to the history of computing in your school days, you will remember that the father of the Computer is Charles Babbage. One is not particularly sure what Fatherly function Mr. Babbage performed, but it must be something unmentionable with a circuit board and some vacuum tubes. In the history of technology – even as it is unfolding right now - there are a few names that emerge as the architects, the creators, the fathers, the grandfathers, the builders and the miracle workers of technology.

Especially in the very accelerated world of computers and internet, we always hear of new names cropping up as THE people who made the internet, the www, and now the web 2.0, what it is now. Let us do a quick exercise and try to list down ten names that we think are influential in our contemporary understanding of technology. Let me give you a few of the more obvious ones – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sabeer Bhatia, Jimmy Wales… you can continue with this list till you have exhausted the most famous of your internet icons – the people who made the internet. And now let us pause and review the list. Chances are, that your list doesn’t have any women in them. If there are women, they might be less than one third of your list.

Why does this discrepancy happen? When you look at the IT city of Bangalore, you realize that there are as many women as men employed in the IT sector. Indeed, if we expand the scope of IT to include mobile and networked economies like the BPO and the Outsourcing industry, we know for a fact that the number of women employed and involved by these new economies is significantly higher than the number of men employees. Why then, is the IT still treated as a.) an essentially male domain created and dominated by men b.) as the play ground of the alpha male nerd who controls technology c.) as dangerous or not conducive to women?
2. Let’s stay with those questions and see if we can tie them up with the next thing we need to do. Here is a small news-paper clipping from not so very long ago in Bangalore - Let’s discuss what are the issues that the article is raising up. Can we see a certain kind of connection between gender and technology being created here, even if it is not clearly spelled out for us? While violence against working women who enter the public sphere, is indeed a concern, the specific nature of the call centre and its technologised economy and related lifestyle is actually more a concern than the women who are working and the violence that affects them. The article, and indeed, much of the discourse that followed this particular case of a call centre employee raped and murdered by the cab driver, very vocally suggested that technology creates conditions of terror for women. Perils and dangers seem to attach themselves to women in the IT industry. There is an underlined sense of danger and fear that is etched whenever it comes to talking about gender and technology and this is one such instance.

3. The third exercise we want to do is to do a bit of profiling. We will look at a list of words and try and imagine what kind of gendered images we produce out of our popular understanding of them:
a. Nerd
b. Geek
c. IT engineer
d. Call Centre employee
e. Systems Administrator
How are these terms gendered and how does our perception of these terms reflect the biases of technology and the material bodies that are made to bear the burden of technologies? How are we conditioned to think of our bodies in relation to technology? How, lastly, do economic factors determine what kind of bodies inhabit what kind of activities, and which, activities, indeed, become more visible, public and masculine.
The reading for this module deals especially with these questions. Light, shows us, in her history of computing, that there was a time when there was a reversal of roles and a reversal in recognizing the most important parts of computing. The system administrator, the Man who created the entire mainframe where the computing took place, was the obviously most important person(s) in the system. The system administrators were able to control the operating system, fix the bugs, and direct women, fresh mathematics graduates, who did the actually computing, to carry the data from one source to another so that results could be aggregated. In those times, when computers were so large that people were actually able to walk through the machines, the women, were actually called computers!
However, as mainframes started shrinking, and as we entered the era of personal computing, the system admin guy was a fast disappearing category. His job was taken over by a reliable assembly line and automated programme aggregators that ensured that assembled machines with pre-installed operating systems were being delivered to the individual users. The women, on the other hand, were the first programmers as we understand them. They had intricate knowledge of the ways in which computing worked and were the only people who actually knew how to write programmes in different languages and lead them to a fruitful execution.
With the change in the nature of programming, the systems admin men slowly took over the role of the programmers and through various figures, like the nerd, and the geek, and the maths wiz, reinforced an older idea that women were not good at numbers, that the new computers were technologised demons which needed to be mastered, and that it is a man’s job to work with the machines and so women should not be considered an integral part of it. So quick and invisible was this transition, that they literally re-wrote history, so that we never really understand the role women played in the history of computing and we don’t remember any mothers of computers or the female architects of the internets. How does such a shift happen? What are the kind of forces that allow for such a radical re-writing of the history? How do economic and market forces, feminize and masculinise technologies, so that the role and the contributions of women in those areas become obliterated and certain prototypical stereotypes get reinforced in a loop?
Light’s essay brings into question the gendered relationship between technology and human beings, but it also draws our attention to questions of livelihood, which we need to ask, following our earlier questions of access. Technologies get gendered, not only through questions of access or historical constructs, but often through figuring out its public reach and market worth. It would be a worthwhile experiment to see, for instance, how, if it is a feminine trait to keep in touch and network, the credit for inventing the first social networking systems, goes to men? What are the institutional processes that keep women’s contribution, labour and efforts within a technology domain as invisible?
And following these, are the concerns of how, even though we see women in the fields of technology, participating and evolving these new technologies, why do we buy so easily into the idea that the relationship between women and technology is always one of danger or terror? Why do we often reinforce the idea that digital technologies is necessarily a domain of the masculine, when it comes to the production of the spaces, but again, the domain more of the feminine, when it comes to consumption of these technologies? Light’s essay demonstrates to us that apart from the imaginary role of technology and its feminization/demonization, there are also material forces and processes by which these technologies get defined as not only available to male or female performers but also marked as feminine or masculine in the kind of roles that it demands from the participants. The material history of technology, from a gender perspective, makes us aware of the fact that the imaginary biases of technology have very real consequences in the lived practices around us and often are subject to the forces of market economies and emerging cultural practices.
[i] The list that Woolf makes in the second chapter and her immediate reflections after that: “Condition in Middle Ages of,Habits in the Fiji Islands of,Worshipped as goddesses by,Weaker in moral sense than, Idealism of,Greater conscientiousness of,South Sea Islanders, age of puberty among,Attractiveness of,Offered as sacrifice to,Small size of brain of,Profounder sub–consciousness of,Less hair on the body of,Mental, moral and physical inferiority of,Love of children of,Greater length of life of,Weaker muscles of,Strength of affections of,Vanity of,Higher education of,Shakespeare’s opinion of,Lord Birkenhead’s opinion of,Dean Inge’s opinion of,La Bruyere’s opinion of,Dr Johnson’s opinion of,Mr Oscar Browning’s opinion of, . . .
Here I drew breath and added, indeed, in the margin, Why does Samuel Butler say, ‘Wise men never say what they think of women’? ‘Wise men never say anything else apparently. But, I continued, leaning back in my chair and looking at the vast dome in which I was a single but by now somewhat harassed thought, what is so unfortunate is that wise men never think the same thing about women. Here is Pope:
Most women have no character at all.
And here is La Bruyère:
Les femmes sont extrêmes, elles sont meilleures ou pires que leshommes——
a direct contradiction by keen observers who were contemporary. Are they capable of education or incapable? Napoleon thought them incapable. Dr Johnson thought the opposite. Have they souls or have they not souls? Some savages say they have none. Others, on the contrary, maintain that women are half divine and worship them on that account. Some sages hold that they are shallower in the brain; others that they are deeper in the consciousness. Goethe honoured them; Mussolini despises them. Wherever one looked men thought about women and thought differently. It was impossible to make head or tail of it all, I decided, glancing with envy at the reader next door who was making the neatest abstracts, headed often with an A or a B or a C, while my own notebook rioted with the wildest scribble of contradictory jottings. It was distressing, it was bewildering, it was humiliating. Truth had run through my fingers. Every drop had escaped.”