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.”

Monday, January 26, 2009

Certificate Course in Gender and Culture by CSCS


I. Introduction
Module 1: Gender-Culture: Introduction to the Course
Module 2: Knowledge Production / Gender as a Category of Analysis

II. Theorising the Contemporary
Module 3: Public – Private: Gender and Space
Module 4: Body, Sexuality and Identity
Module 5: Gender in Cyberspace

III. Issues of Representation
a) Modules 6, 7, and 8 will focus on Political Representation
Module 6: Contestations of the Public
Module 7: Women’s Movement’s engagement with the Law
Module 8: Reservation – Community, Identity
b) Modules 9 & 10 will focus on issues involving Aesthetic Representation

Friday, January 23, 2009


Moderator: Dr. Anup Dhar

Date: January 17, 2009

Report by: Rakhi Ghoshal

This interactive session, the first in the course, began on a rumination-mode: students were asked why they had taken this particular course, what exactly had garnered their interests. Was it not presumed that an involvement with gender was a not-so-fashionable thing to wear on one’s sleeves today? Or, was it, on the contrary, limited to being a mere useful brandname to wear and flaunt? Urged and intellectually provoked, answers and ruminations began to come in thick and fast:


  • Quite for sometime the respondent had pondered on how important the concept of gender was towards defining and shaping one’s identity. Did gender really affect one’s Self, one’s Being? And assuming that we all are gendered selves, how do people negotiate with that knowledge? How did such selves mutually interact? Well, gender is fundamental to a being; but is the macrocosmic society outside too quintessentially gendered, and if it is not, how does a person then make way through life? And coming to the point that some of us are women, with all its nuanced consequences, what are the legal aspects that one might be aware of? How does law deal with the variance in understandings of sexual difference and gender difference? Taking off a cue from the discussions that took place in the previous class, she wondered that since culture is a produced category, since in today’s age of globalization and socio-economic changes, the cultural envelop is also accordingly mutating, how does this reality redefine, if at all, its relation with gender. Focusing on the LGBT movements coming into ‘mainstream’ consciousness, do women get more liberty or less in expressing their sexual orientations compared to men? Where does the identity of ‘my’ Being figure in this frame of sexual expressions? Can one risk the admission of being a homosexual woman?

  • Taking from the previous speaker, this respondent seemed brave enough to face the twitching eyebrows (if any were risen at all!) when she admitted that for a long time she had been against feminism—perhaps not so much against feminism as an executive model as against it as a concept, a concept that had seemed much stereotyped and hackneyed to her. Probed to elucidate this, she said that for quite sometime, she had got the feeling that feminist movements, in whatever space, were essentially concerned with obtaining ‘equality’, ‘emancipation’ for women in general, for women as a homogeneous category. Yet, she strongly believed that the entire species called women could under no circumstance be clubbed into one single unifying group, and asserted to have self-same demands, needs, rights and sense of equality. The feminist movements, in doing this, were ironically going against the grain of contemporary feminist philosophy that hails and tries to accommodate differences. That does no longer adhere to the celebrated notion of equality with men but focuses on the difference. She also added that the previous module had been more of an enlightening one for her since she had got the opportunity to substantiate her belief into conviction, that the very category woman was not naturalized, that it was a construct, a category that could be negotiated with on inter-subjective terms. She ended with the observation that it was now time to transcend the “Women are atleast equal to men if not better” stand point.

Post these two eloquent ruminations put across (with some others providing their acquiescence in between), Dhar took over. He elaborated the thoughts, observing that a certain notion of feminism had indeed become archaic and suffered from overdeterminism. The very term had got oppressed by its paleonimic weight. But the way we, in and through this course, are all set to understand in sync with the path led by __, __ and other contemporaries, shall be frontier-breaking, horizon-stretching in nature. The previous module had posed certain fundamental questions, had confronted the basic foundation of certain assumptions, had shown how things got historicized and laden with the weight of truisms; and this module onwards we shall both try to answer them as well as create our own definitions of gender and culture.

The class talked about how, in a literally eye-opening moment, it was from the “Towards Equality Report”, that we Indians realized that our man-woman sex ratio had plummeted abjectly post independence—needless to say, it was diametrically contradictory to all our expectations. It was then we realized that it was time to stop patting our own backs, basking in the glory of 1947 and instead start taking on board the immediate exigencies of the situation, take control of the scenario. Infact, according to the latest sex-count, it has been found that the Indian sex-ratio is almost as bad as some underdeveloped and under-nourished African countries (though our job is not to take comfort from relativising Indian problems as against similar ones in other nations and showing ourselves as bit better off), the worst part and most intriguing one for that matter being that the sex-count is far lower in metro cities than in rural India. Though a substantive and convincing analysis is still in the offing, the implication of the situation is potent to send shock waves through us, nonetheless! Infact, Ashis Nandy makes the observation that despite India having innumerably more bride-burnings only in posh Delhi than ‘Sati’s all over the country, we have perhaps spent our energies in trying to curb the lesser of the two evils, in creating a hype and furore over Roop Kanwar, while turning a resolutely blind eye to the bigger issue plaguing us. This also underlines our almost-innate nature to relegate all ‘evil’, ‘backward-ness’ and social problems to the rural, in pointing at the far-flung villages and ranting over the witch-burnings, whilst pampering ourselves that the cities are bereft of similar shades, flipping over dowry deaths taking recurrently place at the heart of the cities.

During the 1970s and ’80s, the leitmotif of the feminist movements had been ‘Man oppressor-Woman oppressed’. But as we opened our eyes (alongwith the mind that became tuned in to accept our own limitations and loopholes), we grew out of it. We felt through the texture of sex and gender, saw how one bled into the other and realized that male-bashing was the last of the ways out…if at all a ‘way out’ was what we were trying to find-found. Perhaps what we were trying to find-found was a new understanding, a more accommodating understanding, a more malleable mode of understanding life in general, society at large, and the self in particular. This new feminism, a standpoint feminism, is about love and acceptance, about inclusion—inclusion of the hitherto peripheral, of the hitherto foreclosed, of either gender, notwithstanding the affiliative’s political, national or sexual loyalties—and one that seeks to dismantle stereotypes. This feminism makes allowance for boys who cry—infact urges boys and men to shed tears and remain sensitized and humane—as well as girls who either might climb trees or wish to remain unmarried. More than making allowance, it lovingly accommodates them in its malleable folds.

For aeons we have had coarsening of men alongwith the domestication of women. The last module focused on the latter aspect of tradition; we also need to look into the operative functioning of the former. Men have been repeatedly told, implicitly, covertly, by society that worked its tentacles through the units called family, school, peer, visual and print media, of what constituted a ‘man’, of what made and un-made a man. This fixing of the normative has raised a serious problem for gendered identities—men who have had to force themselves to subscribe to the norm, have had troubled times negotiated with life. This has many a times led to psychological turmoil and nervous breakdowns. The issue is thus not only about the stereotypification of women, but of men as well—infact that of all genders. Feminism should aim not at the insulated emancipation and social strengthening of one chosen gender category but work akin to a spectrum, effectively conscious about the problems, demands, desires and rights of all, albeit with more emphasis on the hitherto marginalised, but distinctions to seep in further, could result in certain problematizations.

Then we sought to focus on the core concept of Gender. Given our present understanding that sex is what one might be born with, born into, gender is a social construct, we might now ponder on what then is gender:

If gender is identity, it is not stable—in that sense that all identities are in a perpetual state of flux, a state of constitutive fluidity, a polymorphous state of existence where subjectivities are the causative factors of Beings. And given the ramified vicissitudes of life, subjectivities cannot be fixed, fit into boxes and stamped as belonging to some particular following. Neither can genders be isolated and marked off as adhering to a preset normative understanding. And this very notion allows for both the fluidity of genders as well as the concomitant existence of multiple genders—both in society at large and within the same Being.

The next point brought on the table was, the redefining of the social organizations of meaning:

So, we are sexed beings, beings in a state of polymorphosity, a state of non-stability, yet firm and stable on its own accounts, rendered stable by our own understandings and negotiations with the very fluidity that marks its existence. And observing the world through this coloured lens of sexed-ness, the semiotics of our surroundings comes across in a sexed way as well. This is the social organization of meaning—the sexed organization of meaning. In the quotidian process of our negotiations with and through life, we produce meanings, disseminate meaning, receive meaning and keep the repository of semiotics alive and in motion. An aspect of the meanings is sexed, such that our lives, our dreams, fantasies, desires, wishes, demands, emotions, expectations, come into its ambit. And thus, the solution to the problems discussed afore, lies not in revising our lives, our dreams, fantasies, desires, wishes, demands, emotions or expectations, but in revisiting and questioning the very organization of meaning itself. Feminism is about altering, redefining, the given social organization of meaning, feminist politics is about questioning and changing the existing nuanced thoughts, mindsets, attitudes, about rewriting canons and classics.

In answering a question posed during the course of the previous class, as to why there has not been any integrated national feminist movement in the Indian context, Dhar said that the cause lay in the lack of a pan-Indian unified understanding of social organization of meaning: in India, the negotiation with social meaning has been inevitably contextualized, therefore leading to an incapacity in reorganizing the meaning in a pluralistic, polymorphous, parallel, self-reflexive way, ways bleeding into one another.

To backtrack a bit, we were talking about the fluidity of gender, taking off from the premise of the naturalalized aspect of one’s sex. But to ask the ultimately assumption-puncturing question, is sex really as naturalized as we believe it to be? Did we always have two sexes?

The tendency to read the world and all within it, as opposites, dichotomies and hegemonized binaries, a preoccupation with a dual mode of life, to divide the world into two consistent-within and homogeneous-within parts, is an essentially Western import; a take off from Aristotle's Laws of Thought. From this, it led onto a position where woman became the ‘lacking other’ of the man, where woman lost out on an independent status as a woman. In that sense, there is no woman, only ‘not-man’. It was essentially from this that we started attributing male and female characteristics to all objects, behavourial patterns and organizations around us. Infact this was what led to the idea of the sexing of social structure of meanings. But prior to the 18th century, we did not have the understanding of two isolated sexes—the two as opposite to one another, as one hegemonizing the other and as abnormalising anything inbetween. Instead, in the pre-18th century, not genders, but sexes were fluid and mutating into one another. One’s sex was primarily decided by the way one lived and not the other way round.

Going by basic anatomical understanding of a man’s body and a woman’s, one finds that the noticeable differences between the bodies lie in what has been identified as the secondary sexual characteristics and the internal reproductive organs. But one wonders if that is enough to posit one against the other, to assert conclusively that one is better than the other. In going by physical parameters, can we really conjure up a fortified scale to say that the womb is ovaries are inferior to the scrotum? And as feminists, neither is it our motive to turn the tables the other way round, but question the very understanding of abiding by this parameter. So, we realize that women were not opposed to man, just different. But nonetheless, they were placed in opposing ambits of the binary and the war launched!

As thus becomes evident, placing the two in watertight compartments forecloses the recognition of any middle—thereby socially obliterating the transsexuals and third genders. In trying to measure the two sexes, philosophers down the ages have resorted to different scales: Freud took the phallus as the deciding point, saying that while men had it and thus suffered from castration-anxiety, women did not have it and this evoked their penis-envy. And in women not having it, they automatically became inferior. Consequently, in showing that one group (invariably the men) had the phallus, were capable of giving in more amount of productive labour and occupied and contributed to the public sphere, when compared to the other (the lacking-other, the women), certain factual differences snowballed into hegemonic and opposed ones, and the grand binary was instituted.

We now know that nature exists in a direct relationality with culture: as we change, our society changes, our habits and moorings change, our nature adjusts and adapts with it—with the change in our food habits, our appendix became redundant. Biology is not as sacrosanct as we might have made it to be…evolution affects culture and is in turn affected by it.

  • A question came in here: Given the understanding that feminism re-questions modernity and the modern conception of the world, tries to examine critically the notion of the cultural and social, does it exempt the empirical sciences as outside the domain of suspicion? Can the natural sciences too be not contaminated with stereotypical biases?

Thus from here we went to interrogate one of the ‘truths’ of human biology: the process of fertilization. What usually goes down as the Truth in school and even medical books, is the highly suspect, actually hypothetical scientific suggestion—that of the sperm swimming up to fertilize the dormant ovum after breaking through its protective covering. But feminist scientists have proposed radically differing explanations. Similarly, even the parallel evolutionary theory of human development proposed by Elaine Morgan counters that of Darwin’s and Morris’ in a logically invincible way. French philosopher Luce Irigaray, through her famous two-lip metaphor contended that the entire existing paradigm of conceptualizing man as supreme and better could be subverted: the lips (in its dual implications) are two and yet one as against the loneliness of the phallus, wet and supple as against the dry erectility of the phallus, caressing and touching one another, often inadvertently as against the penetrative action of the phallus. Added to this, the lips produce speech and thereby are the tropes one uses to enable communication…closeness…relationality…love. But the point then to note here, is not the categorical refutation of ‘male’ (scientific) theories but remaining open minded towards ‘alternative’ and ‘parallel’ modes of interpretation and theorizations…towards an understanding that even the sciences can be biased and coloured by cultural stereotypes.

We thus cannot polarize the two entities namely men and women—there are a sea of differences between them, they are not fixed but transmuting into one another constantly—can we really hierarchize an infinite number of differences? We cannot, since we lack a lowest common denominator. Opposition demands two-ness as a prerequisite and here we have infinite aspects to consider. We thus all are in an intractable inbetween…and the sexes are neighbours, not oppositional.

  • Another question at this point: Can feminism be only about theory while the domain of execution remains insulated? How does the Self change, re-define itself after it has had a dialogue with feminism, after it has negotiated itself with it?

While woman is an idea and we can change and reconsider an idea, the status of feminism is political—a political redefined, a political not about rallies and protests, a political not about defining boundaries and marking out insiders from outsiders, a political not about creating uncompromising notions of allegiances—and the political cannot be made to operate in one way in some particular space and in an oppositional way in some other space. If one understands feminism as a state-of-mind and not as some sort of affiliation to any particular agenda, as an attitude, a way of life that is premised on empathy, inclusion and concern, one cannot but let it define one’s Being, one’s existential mode, and in that light, switching it on and off shall not be possible. The Self changes in as much as it becomes occupied with the notions of empathy, inclusion and concern—in short, of the ethical—and makes itself remain open to re-designings of ideas, like the sand on the shore where new patterns are created after each wave leaves its wayward mark, yet the sand remains where it was…albeit its texture changes, it accommodates the subjectivity of each wave. We were referred the work of the next instructor, Asha Achuthan, where she has akined feminism to a monster—a monster one consciously builds up like Frankenstein—that eventually grows within the conceiver—like the dead daughter in Morrison’s Beloved—and usually allows no rest. In a prosaic nutshell, one imbued with the political called feminism has one’s Self rankled with the issues of the ethical.

  • But how can we understand and define the unease of the Self, the politicizing of the Self, when we have a while earlier established its fluidity? A politicizing presumes a certain consolidation.

At first glance it might seem a contradictory juxtaposition: but as already discussed in the course of the class, woman is a category—existentially women are many, split, in flux, polymorphous. Conceptually thus, the category woman bears a paleonymic weight, it is thus existentially that we are trying to engage with the concept, have a discourse with it. The concept clings to our lives, lived-lives…bodies…existence. But the question might just go deeper—has the infinitude of women’s experiences got substantially represented through the concept formation? The thing appears to travel in convoluted-converging-concentric circles. There still exists several women who have not been able to lay claim on the concept and then again, every claimant is a different person, with a different set of subjectivity. Thus the concept becomes contested even from within.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Module – 1

Topic: Introduction to Gender and Culture
Instructor: Dr. Tejaswini Niranjana
Date: January 10,
Report by: Rakhi Ghoshal

In this introductory class, taken by Dr. Niranjana, there turned out an impressively and quite sizeable crowd, comprising a fair mix of UG and PG students, as well as enrolled faculty members. The class was flagged off by the brief elucidation of the basic structure, tenets and visions of the Higher Education Cell in India. Taking the cue from the present conglomeration of the audience, Niranjana spoke of the need for the formalization of such integrations in similar spaces. The higher education scenario in India has been ailing from the lack of exactly such a venture: the desired and proposed integration would cut across existing boundaries imposed on the intellect-potential of students. The availability of the space for the execution of a symbiotic dialogue between the UG and PG students would be the least of the benefits. We then focused on the idea of the course per se. Such a course, ‘Gender and Culture’, seeking both to understand the concepts of ‘Gender’ and of ‘Culture’, in their separate abstractions as well as aiming to mortar the two by means of studying their mutual affective abilities and scopes, is a new one on Indian intellectual terrain—an experimental one, to be humble. This, all the more, made us realize the need to keep the modules more interactive than instructive.

Post the ‘apologia’, we turned towards (re)framing the stereotypical questions that bug and at times seem to plague the gender issue:

® Is the understanding of gender as a conceptual and activist category outdated?
® How should one read gender into a culture?
® How ideas of/on Men and women get fixed and typecast?
® Do women inevitably oppose subscribing to the patriarchal structure? Or could they too be agential in perpetuating it?
® How has feminism pointed to a nature-culture opposition and how/why are non-West women unhesitatingly relegated to the domain of culture in contrast to the Western ones who are supposed to occupy the realm of nature?
® How and when did the feminism question emerge in the Indian context?

We now try to go section-wise:

I] The Problem of Gender

To start with, Niranjana marked off the binaries Female and Male, saying that they denoted the sex of a person. The gender of one was determined by societal considerations and expectations, seeped in traditional role-qualities. Subsequently we had the Woman and Man, Femininity and Masculinity. To evoke Beauvoir, one becomes a woman. So the point to focus on was how exactly does one born a female mutate into a woman?

A regular perusal and study of the horoscope updates in magazines and newspapers provides an interesting insight into how the stereotypes of the feminine and the masculine are diligently perpetrated. Other interesting spaces, apart from the bulk of commercial Bollywood movies and ad films, are the cartoon strips. Thus, across a range of representational genres, especially the media, can one observe the adherence to the conventional notions and understandings of gender and gendered identities. But before answering the question posed a while earlier, one might pause a bit to try to dwell on the connotations of the word ‘stereotype’.

Deriving its etymological roots from the Greek ‘Stereo’ [Solid/Firm] and ‘Tupos’ [Impression/Fixed mark] , a stereotype implies a generalization, an imposition of particulars onto masses as their universalized characteristics, a predetermination of the other’s behaviour, a subscription to normativized notions, an operative mode within a set hierarchical structure and a preoccupation with the marked out perimeters of the excluded and the included with not much space or allowance for the inclusion of the left-out, among others. The consequences of fixing these stereotypes and nurturing them can be quite serious and debilitating on both the individual as well the community.

One area where stereotypes are operative is patriarchy. Patriarchy connotes the power and authority wielded by the father, the name of the Father. Societies and communities are structured on patriarchal terms and under such situations, the dominance exerted by the father figure is assumed to be ‘normal’ and even benevolent in most cases. The agency of the non-father other is usually put under erasure. But over time, both men and women feminists argued over the reductionist essence of the term and forwarded Androcentrism in its stead. This term takes into account the entire spectrum of male–centered dominance. And the point to note is that women too can be perpetrators as well as subscribers to this way of life. Therefore one can posit that androcentrism is a state of mind, a way of perceiving life in general.

Niranjana offered the students an insight into the existing contemporary social scenario: notwithstanding the swelling number of female students in undergraduate courses all over the country, one could not fail to notice the dwindling quantity as the rungs led up—once in serious academia, relatively few female students pursued the end. Niranjana attributes this downward swoop not to some lower intellect or some such thing, but to what she calls, the ‘glass-ceiling effect’. For most women, an invisible glass layer exists between their means and the achievements when turned into real. Of course, few women have always been at the top—certain success stories have been taken up as tokenized versions, but that has been it.

Referring to the post French Revolution period and the landmark treatise by Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Women: With Structures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), Niranjana noted how despite the work being the first of its kind, being the harbinger to the waves to come soon after, despite taking note of the ludicrous usage of the term ‘Fraternity’ while describing an entire nation’s liberation and equality, Wollstonecraft still falls short of the later feminists’ expectations by dint of her own attitude towards the women of her country and times: she religiously berates them for having subscribed to aeons of stereotypes and for having perpetuated the same by remaining self-relegated to the domestic sphere and not participating actively enough in affecting and shaping the political backdrop of the nation, in the way the men had done. She also appeals to the menfolk to release the bondage of women: at the end of the chapter “Of the Pernicious Effects Which Arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society”, she writes:

I then would fain convince reasonable men of the importance of some of my remarks; and prevail on them to weigh dispassionately the whole tenor of my observations. Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers – in a word, better citizens.

Moving from this to the next section, we arrived at:

II] The Nature-Culture Binary

Thus, talks were on as to how (Western) civilization was being contributed to and shaped by the men. And consequently it was noted how the women were usually holding the men back, creating obstacles—moral, emotional or otherwise—and trying to keep them from pushing the frontiers of civilizations and terrestrial discoveries further outwards. Examples were provided from the lives of the expeditionists travelling to find new land and conquer the same. The wilderness that was to be tamed and brought under male surveillance was a metaphor for putting female nature under similar control. Gradually this led to the formation and institution of a cleavage between nature and culture. A binary was formed with the usual hegemony of one concept over the other, the usual understanding that the one needed to muffle the demands of the other. In this case, culture reigned supreme.

Now to focus on our own context. Mary John, [“Feminism in India and the West”, Cultural Dynamics 10, (2)] and others have pointed out that in India and other non-Western areas, women have been intrinsically associated with culture as opposed to nature, the concept of what is natural and have upheld the cross of culture. In India and other several Asian spaces, women have been understood as responsible for holding the torch of culture high. Subsequently, the structure of the aforementioned binary has got subverted understandably. But now we try to understand the how of this reversal: for perhaps because the circumstances and vicissitudes here have been radically different from those in the West, under which the dichotomy came into existence in the first place: the trajectory of experience and thought shaping the history of a colonizing power and those moulding the way of life of a being-colonized space, are bound to be so different that the structure of the binaries they throw up, can never be homologous.

Now to understand how this reversal:

The question of culture assumes immense importance in non-Western and colonized spaces. Putting these two together in our context, we arrive at the scenario where a non-Western and colonized space merge together. Thus with culture understood here as a mark of distinctiveness and distinction in relation to the colonizing West, we gain insights into how a historically specific way of thinking about Indian women came to be naturalized. Niranjana spoke about the William Jones and his rhetoric on the Indian past: how India was a venerable and revered civilization sharing common strains with the European continent. He attributed India’s present existence in the nadir of all possible qualities to the Islamic invasions prior to the foothold made by the Europeans, and he asserted that in order to excavate the glorious past, Indians would inevitably have to rely on and cooperate with the present invaders, since they had by then reached the pinnacle. Thus, colonization was portrayed as a benevolent and almost epistemologically-philanthropic venture.

This led to a widespread attempt on the part of the educated and academically inclined English to read and study India and form immutable conclusions: often reams were written by people who had never set foot on Indian soil but relied solely on the reports and records maintained and taken back to England by the missionaries and other attendants. The most popular, almost-assiduous body of work is by James Stuart Mill [History of India; 1817] where he interprets India and her social mores, her customs and culture through European lenses, clubbing together disparate aspects and forming categorical conclusions using analytic modes honed to study only English society at the most. In the three volumes, he provides his subjective accounts of Indian customs and conclusively asserts that India is a barbaric land with savage and primitive rituals. He pre-states that the marker of a culture’s greatness and spiritual transcendental qualities lie in the way it treats its women; and subsequently states that India being a place where female infanticide and widow burning was prevalent, could never ever hope to measure up to the high civilizational standards set up by the West. He even refutes Jones’ argument about a great Indian past.

Now the interesting point to note is that while the Indian nationalists did get offended by such inferences, they accepted the debate on its own terms nonetheless. The nationalists did not set out to dictate new/other terms of reading the greatness or the lack of it of a culture but set out to prove substantially that Indians had great liberated and educated women in the past, women who had been intellectually and socially at par with her contemporary men, and even in the present scenario, despite their domestication, the women were highly cultured and often modeled on European-feminine terms. In trying to understand how the women slipped into the domesticated confinements, in colonial India, Niranjana referred to Partha Chatterjee’s “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women Question”: [Please read the substantive quote form the same work, provided in the module] in this piece of writing Chatterjee talks of the post 1835s. In 1835 Lord Macaulay had passed the act that demanded English as the official language of the Indians. This was done in view of producing Indians well equipped with the English mores, customs, manners, etiquettes and ways of life, fluent in the language and ready to work with the British administration, since importing English men from the island was not always a feasible idea—economically and otherwise too. Thus the Indians, especially those subscribing to the Nationalist way of thought, were left in a state of ambivalence: to get educated according to ‘modern’ terms as well as to assert their spiritual superiority over the rulers, now needed to be done simultaneously. Subsequently, the onus of the latter task fell on feminine shoulders. But in again trying to prove that Indians were indeed a liberated lot, the men had to make a show of giving freedom to domesticated women, making them modern too. Thus in a twist of situation, it was understood that from then on, the women, especially those belonging to the upper-middle and elite classes would now have to bear the Indian cross of upholding the vestiges of a great culture, a grand past and subsequently enhance and glorify it. And concomitantly, they would have to also show the English that they too could learn to converse in and write English, to dance and host parties. English governesses coming in to teach the language, manners and etiquettes to the housewives, became a common practice. Eventually, women began to be identified as the synonym of culture and it was through their conduct, appearances, public and also private behaviour that the ‘prestige’ of an entire nation came to depend on. Expectedly, the men resorted to fortified surveillance on the women’s ways of life.

In post colonial time, feminists have engaged with and analyzed the formation of normative femininity as it has taken shape in the Indian context. This has eventually led to a way of understanding and critiquing political forms from the standpoint of gender, positing that the citizen-subject is not a neutral category in which it functions.

We moved henceforth to the next section:

III] Emergence of the Culture Question

Niranjana then had the class ponder on the question of the ‘age’ of the concept of culture. Culture as a part of quotidian life, as shaping a society’s philosophy and religious and non-religious beliefs, is often used as the marker for weighing one society against another, for mutual contestations. And in the post colonial societies, both in India and other spaces, the colonized have tried to portray their culture and cultural moorings as ethically, morally and epistemologically superior than that of the colonizers’. Looking for a parallel term in Indian language will more or less lead us to ‘Sanskriti’. But ironically, a study of the term’s etymology and history will reveal it as a mere translation of the English word. While this is not to say that India did not have an understanding of culture before English invasion, it is of course implied that in the post-19th century we have understood culture and cultural parameters in a new way, a Western way. We have read it then on as opposite to development, progression, to modernity. We have then created a new binary; modern opposed to the cultural. The modern connotes other arms of other binaries too—the world, outside, public, assertiveness and so on, while cultural takes care of the home, the inside, the private, submission, i.e. evidently feminine characteristics. Thus while men have appropriated the responsibility towards bettering the modern and sharpening the edges of modernity, (equating it with technology and a Westernized way of life), women have merely embodied the cultural aspects of the same. Cultural and ritualistic importance were attributed to domestic work and gradually they were made to seem a part of tradition. As men moved out in to the external worldly sphere, women looked after children and tried to keep the family together.

The call of the day is thus to critically unpack the category ‘woman’.

And the last section:

IV] The Woman Question in Asia

This phenomenon is not an Indian issue but cuts across other Asian nations too. In several such spaces, the ‘culture’ question has become the ‘national culture’ question with significant implications for women. Nationalist movements have on and off provided scopes for women to engage in a politically charged way, to participate in defining the future of their nation, but that has not in total dismantled the pre-fixed status and role of women.

To move to another point that ails contemporary feminism across Asia is the ‘Westernized’ concepts that grew out of weatern exp of the movement itself. Critics argue that a movement that was initialized, conceptualized and mobilized by the Western understandings of women oppression and its necessary retaliations, cannot serve similar purposes in a non-West setting, given the diametrically opposed cultural, social and historical understandings that determine the identity of the latter. Interestingly, similar arguments are rarely forwarded when non-West men take up to the ideals of Marxism or Liberalism! So, why this strategic insulation of feminism?

The contention is that feminist demands are ‘Western’ ones and that they go against the grain of Indian (or other Asian) culture. As Niranjana pointed out, such criticisms are easily leveled against, but one needs to look critically into how the very notion of culture shaped itself. The irony of the situation comes across quite transparently!

As Indian feminists, as citizens aware of the culture debate, as subjects conscious of the women question, we need to understand—
* How the creation of the national essence was based on the assertion of cultural difference from the West
* How women were frequently represented as the embodiment of that difference

It remains evident that when non-Westerns define the relationship between culture and modern, what gets implied is that women are part of the cultural and therefore are authentic. Modern remains the domain of the men. And thus, when women do tend to tread the domain of the modern, they are branded as assertive, individualistic, non-traditional and non-feminine. They are read as ones challenging the heritage and are therefore perceived as potent threats to the ‘culture’ of India.

These inter-related ideas have presented a serious problem for feminists in India who have been engaged in trying to unpack and reassemble the category of the typecast Indian woman. So it is through feminist efforts that we have gained insights into how a historically specific way of thinking about Indian women came to be naturalized. Feminist historians have shown that formulation of notions of culture in India was premised on women.

That ended the 3-hour session and post a tea-coffee break, Dr. Niranjana took on several questions from the students as well as the University faculty members:


Was William Jones actually trying to justify English colonization, by suggesting that they were helping us uncover our own heritage?
That remains a non-verifiable possibility of course! But at the same time, we now are not as much concerned with the exact workings on of the mind of Jones, as with the social conventions, interventions and workings of larger ideological structures. Nonetheless, a part of the West intelligentsia was engaged in unearthing an ancient connection between India and Greater Europe: as got manifested through the works of Max Mueller, the proposition of the existence of the Indo-European group of languages and the assertion that the Aryans were Europeans and thus, Indians, especially those of the northern parts were a mixed breed of Europeans and Asians. This divide eventually created a false sense of hierarchy between those supposedly carrying Aryan ‘higher’ blood and the non-so-high Dravidian, the southerners. That was the beginning of the ethno-psychological fragmentation of the land.

Do we really have no way of accessing our own past?
Going back to the, what we understand as our ‘ancient’ past, is indeed a bit problematic; this is primarily because we do not have access to much ancient documents or source. And since the notion of ‘culture’ was very much different then from what it is now, to identify specific areas according to our current perceptual lenses, might be misleading at times. Yet, certain researchers are working on these projects and we perhaps shall see some results soon.

The Bhadramahila concept prevalent especially in colonial Bengal seems to be a major take off from the Victorians’ idea of their women. How far is this hunch true?
It is largely true. As was discussed, in a major effort to emulate British etiquette and mores, whilst caught in the crossfire of reinstating a great Indian heritage where women had enjoyed a liberated social status, the men of colonial India were eventually seen to design this concept of the Bhadramahila. It was more commonly observed in colonial upper and elite class Bengal. Yet, the social contours and vicissitudes were different in India from the European context.

We learn that middle and elite class women were gradually domesticated, as the onus of maintaining the essence and prestige of the rich and glorious vestiges of the Indian past were pressed onto their shoulders. But did all women spontaneously comply with the new role? How did the women (re)act to it?
True, not all women smoothly accepted their new designated role. Given that prior to this turn, they had not been forced into domestication, we did have several instances of rebellion and opposition. Yet, the mass (of women in general) could not overthrow the yoke of the burden effectively. Individual instances were dealt with diplomatically or aggressively. We do have historical accounts of women who had rebelled against this fortification. Literature has been written and films made on them too: Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (adapted from Rabindranath Tagore’s Nashta Neer) and Ghare Baire (adapted from Tagore’s novel by the same name; The Home and the World) portray such non-submissive and intelligent women of the times. Yet, in general women gradually, subscribed to the new model of behaviour and way of life. And in this introductory class, we are trying to understand the general trend of how roles got defined and strictly inscribed and new binaries of world-home, outside-inside, public-private, got instituted.

Why did the Westerners assume the status of women in any nation as the index of its cultural superiority? Why judge India by Sati and not, say, the filth on her roads?
This method of designating Sati as the prime index for ranking a nation’s cultural and civilizational progress, was adopted mainly by Europeans who had never set foot in India, Europeans like James Mill. Theirs was mainly the original anthropologist’s interest in studying India and quite by the same parameters, in reading the country as a long way down in the step-ladder of progress and intellect development. And since they relied mainly on the diaries and notes written by missionaries and other administrators who were neither trained nor supposed to paint a realistic and balanced perspective of India, their own accounts turned grotesquely partial and subjective—coloured with the white tint of the colonizer’s sense of hegemony and authority to denounce. Sati, by dint of its dramatic quality, garnered more interest than the filth, which they probably excused as a part and parcel of a ‘primitive’ tribe’s way of life, and subsequently the diaries noted more of such events, which in turn provided historians like Mill the idea that female infanticide and widow burning and so on, were an essential part of the Indian way (since they never set foot in India and so could never witness the filth for themselves), a way awaiting to be severely critiqued and denounced and eventually banned only by the English.

Taking cue from Partha Chatterjee’s work mentioned during the class, one might note that most studies of colonial times have been done in relation with and in the context of Bengal. Can one then generalize the results in a pan-Indian way?
The particular work mentioned [Nation and its Fragments] is not an empirical project, but a conceptual one, one that makes an attempt at studying the growth and structuring of the notion of the nation, with particular reference to colonial Bengal. Chatterjee infact forwards it as a theory that is not meant to be generalized. The work is supported by documentations that are often hypothetical and anecdotal—a satiable amount of archival data is not always available. But if the question, why Bengal at all is posed, then I would say that since the association of the East India Company with Bengal goes back the longest, Calcutta being their first trading port as well as their first colony which they converted to the capital of the country, the historical data is richest in this place. And this might prompt a tendency to study Bengal and draw generalizing inferences. Certain ideas do come to be identified as the “ruling ideas of the age”. And if we are to challenge this homogenizing Nationalist mode today, we should produce an equivalent amount of work on the other states, since not much has still been done. It remains true on a practise-level that National models are thrown up that in effect subsume particulars, identities and subjectivities. Chatterjee produces conceptual handle that offers to understand things in the contemporary in relation to how things fared in the past.

Is gender-studies focused solely on the concerns and issues of women?
When people across social spaces began to be troubled and concerned with issues related to women, the marginalization they faced and the oppression they underwent, the discipline Women’s Studies slowly began to emerge and eventually got instituted as schools and departments across the globe. But gradually, even feminists realized the incompleteness of the concept—in understanding women, across countries, social classes and cultures as universally worse off than their male counterparts was not taking things into a holistic view. Even within the movement, sexually marginalized women, women belonging to the down most socio-economic class were ignored, as were men belonging to the same categories. The need for redefining this concept was felt and Gender Studies was conceptualized. Gender Studies, studies both women related issues as well as what is now emerging as Masculinity Studies. Debates, theorizations and discussions are taking place across the board to understand and work on these new areas: understand their sexuality issues, issues of social and emotional concern, etc. Issues pertaining to the transsexuals as well as the LGBT movement are part of gender studies now.

How do we negotiate with the different feminine principles?
The very notion is unacceptable for me. The term works like a psychological archetype. But nonetheless, people down the decades have indeed worked in a variety of, often confusing, ways, to deal with the different feminine principles: during the independence movement the issues of women were a crucial factor as we discussed today, but once post August 1947, we entered a ‘Silent Period’. Till the 1970s, not much ripple was created regarding women issues. It was assumed, especially by the Nationalists who now took upon the reigns of the free nation in their governing hands, that with attaining the biggest victory—that of a free nation—automatic care had been taken of all other related issues, of women, poverty, education, sovereignty, communalism, etc. But in about twenty years’ time the fallacy of the idea was witnessed and once again, the movements have begun, anew, with new demands and a new determination to get equipped to cope with new problems that the post-1947 brought in its train.

Why indeed has most of the theoretical propositions emanated from Western thought? Why have we not been able to generate much theorization?
If we focus only on women studies—though a gamut of other areas exist concomitantly—we indeed are faced with this lack. But this is not to insinuate that till today nothing has been done; on the contrary, Centres and Schools of Women Studies are coming up across the country in various university and institutional spaces. Several Indian feminists, both in India and those working from abroad, are studying the Indian scenario in the concerned context, working as activists as well as theorists, coming up with Indian theories and dealing with Indian problems and issues. Till now, no major national mobilization of women has taken place and that is what has affected this relatively slower developmental rate. But things are not all that bleak—the Indian cerebral layer is indeed active appreciatively!


Ema Tarlo: Clothing Matters
Lata Mani: Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India
Partha Chatterjee: Nation and its Fragments
Raymond Williams: Keywords
Kumkum Sangari and Suresh Vaid: Recasting Women