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.

1 comment:

    Supposing, a person (man, woman, 'sexual minority' etc) is aware of and is inside and facing an oppressive sex-gender process, and is completely aware of what is happening. However, the person who is perpetuating the oppression, is of course not aware of it. (I'm too much of an optimist to consider that this person knows and still perpetuates!). So my question is - if you know you are being oppressed, and you are helpless because of economic reasons, or physical reasons, then what should you do?
    Focusing on the adrocentrism around us, and keeping the interpersonal focus thin is ok to make people aware of what is happening. But once awareness seeps in, then what?
    Vanguardism is definitely out of style now, but is it completely useless? I would love to hear some suggestions, as I'm sure some of the women's organizations as well, who have been asking these questions for long now.
    We have assumed perhaps that once people know that a frog is a frog is a frog, then people will automatically opt out of the situation, but sometimes one can't because of various circumstances. I can list out quite a few, and all of them, I have personally seen. Then we as outsiders, who are aware of the real situation, as well as the androcentrism, what is our role here, and more importantly, what does the oppressed do? This is the crux of all development related questions, not just gender related, because pretty much the same theory (give or take) applies to now famous questions of poverty alleviation, education, health and so on.