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® Is the understanding of gender as a conceptual and activist category outdated?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


  1. yes... i think that sums up the class quite well. Thanks so much for that.

  2. Wow! This a brilliant way of keeping us more involved in the class! We can have our own notes, and at the same time, not fear that we miss out on anything from the class.

    BTW, can someone post a link to the Towards Equality Report hosted at the CSCS website? Thanks :)

  3. Since the blog is not updated after the second class and this is a bit off the track, I just want to point out how the problematization is already working on how i look at things.
    I read somewhere in the newspaper that Hindi film "Chandni Chowk..." has been banned in Nepal because it says that Buddha was born in India. This made me wonder whether there was any existing notion of Indian territory at that time. Also, somewhere in my ninth grade I had read " Neighboring countries like Nepal, Burma, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were a part of the ancient India. But isn't the concept of India as a nation just 60 years old or so?

  4. Thanks for this class update and we hope to get the update on second class as well. Can anybody suggest how can we have access to the 1st two suggested readings: Ema Tarlo: Clothing Matters
    Lata Mani: Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India.


  5. Dear "Those have logged in with expectations of getting the 2nd class update",...I am held back due to some unforeseen technical problems at CSCS. Hope you all will kindly wait for another 24 hours by which time I promise to upload the report. As for the questions asked, I shall get back with as much cooperation as would be within my possible limits. :)