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