Articles,  Dr Kavita Sharma

A Dialogue With Myself

Dr. Kavita Sharma
President of South Asian University & Advisory Council
 

 

For me to think of Indian women is to dialogue with myself.   What are the influences that I grew up with in post independence India?  What are their sources?  What are the contemporary images and ideas that I absorbed, puzzled over, accepted or rejected?

There was my mother from a small village of U.P. without even a school, whose father defied convention, refused to marry her off at the age of nine, was condemned by the community for his pains, but who succeeded in making her a doctor and begin practice in 1946.   There was her struggle with the extended family after marriage as there was a supportive husband but denunciation by the rest especially by the women leading to isolation and permanent rupture in relationships.  An aunt followed her sister’s footsteps as a doctor but failed to marry.  The barbs, taunts, social rejection and consequent isolation were so great that she lost her mental balance.  The process was completed by a god man, whom she accepted as her guru. Another aunt had internalized the ideals of domesticity but was  widowed at the young age of twenty eight. Then began a journey of disillusionment with the family. She was pitched into the workforce where she struggled with two little children and ill-health only to be told at her daughter’s wedding that she could not participate in the marriage ceremony as she was a bad omen.  Another aunt was so condemned  for bearing no children that  she became embittered developing a grouse against everyone including god himself.  Were these  unique to my family or were they   widespread in society? As I looked around I found a mixed scenario.

On the one hand there were issues of female illiteracy, malnourishment, domestic violence, high maternal morbidity and mortality child abuse in particular of the girl child, child marriage, dowry deaths, custodial crimes where the protectors of law themselves become the law breakers, female foeticide and infanticide and scores of other such maladies. Many cases were bought out into the open by militant women’s organizations and the media but on the other hand several violations were perpetrated on women in the quiet of their homes often by women themselves in the name of tradition. `izzat’ and women’s dharma.  What was this tradition I asked myself and was it all bad?  Did it have to be cast way before anything could be changed?

But, then, there was also another side to this  picture. Constitutional provisions not only gave women equality before law, but also  the state the right to provide for affirmative action in favor of women. Consequently,  laws were enacted  to make child marriage and dowry a crime, to protect women against violence, to give free education to the girl child, to  provide equality of opportunity in the work force, to provide for equal pay for equal work, voting rights and representation of women in the political sphere to name just a few.2  Effects of the winds of change were being felt everywhere in India and the struggles of the elder women of my family were gradually becoming women’s issues center stage.  The visibility of women was rapidly increasing in not only the traditionally accepted professions of teachers and doctors but also in fields like law, journalism, administrative services, corporate executives and others that had been previously considered male bastions. To take just two  indicators, the overall female literacy rose to 54.16% in 2001 as compared to 21.97% in 1971, and since 1981 the rate of increase in female literacy is higher than that of men.  Again, if employment is taken as another indicator, percentage of women in the workforce has risen considerably.  A more  nuanced analysis will throw up problems and challenges but the steady increase in the participation of women outside their homes and  their gradual empowerment cannot be denied.  Other parameters could be similarly examined.3

I realized that I had grown up in a family struggling, conversing and often fighting with rancor and anguish over two ideas that are, perhaps, the crux of the issue with regard to women in contemporary India.  One is the traditional role of women deriving their personal and social identities from being daughters, wives and mothers with home being the essential site of their activity.  The other is the opportunity of education, employment and aspirations that modern India offers to women opening before them a tempting world beyond tradition and beyond home. Are these opportunities, I asked myself, a gift of modernity and if so are tradition and modernity adversaries?  What is tradition and what is modernity anyway? These questions, I realized were tangled ones.

Modernity and Tradition

Modernity is not necessarily a perspective in the framework of chronology although intimately connected with it.  To live in the present is not necessarily to be modern because then modernity can become a fetish in which every new fad or strange idea in vogue is to be followed.  It is to be aware of our times and milieu and our relationship to them. It is also true that we cannot cut ourselves off from the past because to obliterate its memory is to lose our identity and then there nothing left to build on.   To be truly modern, then, cannot be to jettison tradition but to reexamine it in the context of one’s present. And this reexamination has to be done by each individual according to her own experiences, needs and requirements because otherwise she can be as much a prisoner of the rigidities of the present as of the past.4

Human society is constantly in a state of transition.  Some aspects of a culture or civilization are continuously becoming redundant while new ideas and thoughts are getting assimilated.  When this movement stops or stagnates as it happened for about a hundred years in India from the beginning of the eighteenth century to that of the nineteenth century, society clings to outward manifestations of culture but they become rotten and decayed from within. Why did this happen and how did India respond? One reason was that the sheer process of time rendered social practices and institutions that had relevance and meaning when they were formulated, narrow and rigid.  The superabundant energy of thirty centuries of unparalleled and amazing intellectual and creative activity finally ran out and the joy of life and creation became jaded and repetitive.  Gradually, the freedom of thought and expression gave way to meaningless repetition of past formulations as the scientific and critical mind slept and creative intuition got stifled.  The second was the impact of several and continuously repeated invasions that took place with varying degrees of terrifying brutality and plunder till the Mughals finally made India their home.  While at one level it led to the creation of a composite culture of Islam and Hinduism it also made large sections of the Hindu community feel threatened and insecure.  As a reaction the community defended, with great ferocity, every extravagance of custom and meaningless social institution.  Any observer of this time would find it hard not to characterize most of Indian society as barbaric that clung on to the extreme inequities of the caste system like untouchability, pre-puberty marriages of girls often with aged and already married men, enforced and rigorous widowhood, food taboos and other such horrifying customs and conventions.  Like every growing thing, culture too, has in it dead tissues that continuously need to be cast off and new tissues have to be continuously added. These inequities against women were the dead tissues that were preserved for a time with great tenacity as society closed in upon itself.6

Indian civilization and culture met the European at this time of social disintegration and political anarchy.  It was the evening of the past from which a new age had to start and the impact of the West with its new ideas and, in many respects, opposite civilization values proved a mixed blessing.  While it created in Indians a great sense of  inferiority with regard to their tradition and heritage, it simultaneously forced them to take a hard look at themselves, reassess their past and come to terms with it. It revived the dormant intellectual and critical impulse, awakened the desire for new creation by confronting the Indian spirit with new conditions and ideals that had to be urgently understood and assimilated.  It forced a new look at the past and an attempt to make connections between it and the modern knowledge and ideas coming from the West.7

The British hastened the process by highlighting the weaknesses of the traditional social order of the Indians, inferiorisng their culture and epistemology and even the people as a race. There were at least two responses. One was to turn against the traditional order and the second was to rebel against the cultural hegemonisation by the colonial state. On the one hand, the reformers of the nineteenth century found the traditional culture inadequate to meet the challenges of western modernity, but on the other they were also not willing to accept the western model in its totality.

Heritage of the Past

Hence, as K.N. Panikkar points out, there was hardly any social issue in which the question of past practice, and scriptural sanction for it was not involved or debated.9     Women became a site in the 19th century to the  freedom movement both for the reformers and the colonial state.  Hence, issues pertaining to  women like their education, social reforms for improving their position in society, religious reforms pertaining to the lot of widows, questions of remarriage, the abolition of social ills like purdah, sati and others came to the forefront.10 At the same time a nationalistic patriotic vision was created of a golden past when women had equal access to education and other opportunities and had held an honored  place in society.  Also, the idea that women were worshipped as goddesses in India almost always came up to somehow indicate that however degraded contemporary  Indian society may  be, it had given them great respect at one time.11 

But is there really egalitarianism between the sexes when the culture is goddess centered and her worship is female managed.  It does not seem to be necessarily the case.  There may have been some pre-patriarchal woman dominated society but even if it existed it must have been some millenniums ago.   As Kinsley points out after examining a deal of evidence: “Hinduism knows a great variety of goddesses, many of whom are powerful and independent, some of whom dominate male deities, yet Hindu culture is patriarchal.  Hinduism seems to teach that a theology/religion/mythology in which goddesses are important does not necessarily imply sexual egalitarianism.  Female power, creativity and authority in the theological sphere do not necessarily imply high female status in the social sphere.”12

If such a golden past cannot be found the question is what was the position of women in the male dominated society of ancient India?  I turned to the gallery of powerful women in the Mahabharata that is supposed to have evolved over a period of a thousand years  and which in the process gathered within it customs and conventions of different times and places.  It holds up a mirror to both individual and society with unblinking  honesty rather than presenting idealized pictures of them. With great astonishment I read King Yudhishthira’s question to Bhishma lying on his bed of arrows after the war and giving his instructions on governance on how to cope with women whose sexuality was such a destructive force that the mightiest of men were rendered helpless in front of it.13  One way, Bhisma implied, was that men should  try and regulate their conduct.  Women were divided into two classes:  the utterly destructive because of their unbridled sexuality and chaste wives and mothers who upheld the earth with all its forests and so needed to be protected and cherished.14  But what was chastity? Certainly it was not fidelity to one man.  Practices of niyoga or levirate, polyandry, sexual freedom within marriage before Swetaketu laid down the law of fidelity to one man, a woman’s right to make advances to a man and his obligation to respond or be punished as Arjuna was, are very much accepted in the epic.  Hence chastity does not seem to involve fidelity to one man but the regulation of a woman’s sexuality by a man be it her father or husband.  In this patriarchal society women gained status chiefly  as wives and mothers of sons, their primary duty being to serve the family, mainly their husbands to whom their whole beings were to be devoted.

But some concept of equity between men and women seems to have existed.  The wife was weighed down by duties towards her husband but he could only demand their fulfillment by performing his own duty towards her.  Minor characters refuse to be tied down by unequal relationships.  Pradweshi throws out her husband because he has failed to either support her or to protect her and so has lost his rights over her.15  Gautam’s son Chirkari uses the same argument to disobey his father who wants him to punish his mother for transgression.  When a chaste wife deviates, the burden is placed on the husband.

Then there are powerful women like Satyavati, Kunti, Gandhari and of course Draupadi.  Although they gain their status as wives and mothers of sons leading to intense rivalry between them, once that position has been obtained they can’t be ignored. When Yudhishthira seems to waver Kunti urges him and her other sons to fight to avenge Draupadi, regain their kingdom and their lost honor.16  Draupadi constantly debates dharma, kingship and war with Yudhishthira only to differ with him and never lets the Pandavas forget that they have to fight to defeat the Kauravas.17  Gandhari tries to dissuade Duryodhana from war in the open court through arguments on statecraft, kingship and the righteousness or otherwise of taking recourse to the battlefield.18  Even subsidiary women characters like Duhshala, Ulupi and Chitrangada play significant roles in the public sphere changing the course of events in the ashvamedha after the war.19  Therefore, even in this strongly patriarchal world, women manage to create space for themselves and become powerful figures, a force to be reckoned with through their own intelligence, acumen and endeavor.  It is more often the men rather than the women who appear at crucial moments to be indecisive, lacking in sagacity and in need of support to move them to action.

Mahabharata   goes a step further and gives a glimpse of a completely autonomous woman  who needs neither the  gods nor the  men.  This is the ascetic Sandili who punishes Garuda the king of the Birds because he thought of carrying her away from the Rishava mountain where she lives alone to where reside  Mahadeva and Vishnu.  She  rebukes him saying that she has obtained her position by her own endeavours and conduct and not with anyone’s aid and assistance, hence even such a thought is sinful on his part. She warns him never again to blame any woman again even if he feels she is blameworthy.20

Tradition then, created a dominantly male society with women certainly in a subordinate position but it did not also preclude a truly independent woman.  Obviously time made it progressively rigid and oppressive to them and it needed winds of modernity to blow in from the West.  If India treated its women as second class citizens, the West did no better and hence feminism arose there and became a part of the progressive modernist agenda.

 Impact of the West

Reformation and Counter Reformation unleashed forces that generated absolute confidence in the power of reason to discover the truth of life and in the power of technology to alter social and cultural patterns.  Simultaneously, Renaissance gave impetus to a humanist movement that too reinforced a belief in reason.  Anything that could not be scientifically tested or verified was to be rejected.  The aim was emancipatory and an attempt to liberate human beings from all arbitrary beliefs.  It was felt that once human problems could be rationally analyzed, objective solutions could also be found.  In such a worldview, the past became the dark ages in which religion and faith had unleashed frightening primitive emotions and uncritical superstitions.21

From Enlightenment arose Liberalism in which the central concern was equality under an artificial sovereign authority, whose power derived from the consent of the governed and an equal treatment of all citizens under law.  The central political concern of the liberal tradition in dealing with the oppressed, whether it be the poor or women or any other under privileged class, was equal access.  It was thought that social justice could be provided to such groups through education and adjustments in the existing laws and institutions.  Therefore, liberalism emphasized democracy, equality under law and equality of opportunity in education and employment.  This implied faith in the ability of institutions to provide this equality of opportunity and access; and that is why, in spite of phases of often very violent protest, it was a reform rather than a revolutionary movement.

Both modernity and feminism clearly recognized that women had been traditionally oppressed. However, as long as the cottage industry and the family farm were the center of the economic life of people, women could not be ignored because in spite of their subservient position and social and legal inferiority as they played a vital economic role.  Enlightenment paved the way for the establishment of capitalism and democracy that led to far reaching economic changes in the 17th and 18th centuries. But this left the middle class women with no clear roles in society except the ones determined by men–that is, the roles of mothers, and wives.  Therefore, an important liberal feminist agenda became how to put meaning into the lives of well-educated middle class women.  The western view of modernity, thus did not bring the women out into the external material world as a workforce.  Rather, it concentrated on how to make them good wives and mothers thereby  providing an ideological framework to legitimize their confinement to the domestic sphere.  It took two world wars to bring them out into the public domain.

The liberal feminists, however, did achieve much—the right to vote, constitutional legal access to education and professions, equality before law and greater economic parity in many areas.  Although there is still a long way to go, several things that we take for granted today are because of the struggles of the liberal feminists.

The modernist position did not touch the thorny issue of gender differences. These emerged in the radical feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s whose fundamental premise was that men imposed gender roles on women and manipulated them for their own purposes—economic, emotional and sexual.  Family, according to them, was the site that reinforced gender differentiation and perpetuated women’s subservient position; hence it had to be abolished.  They advocated homosexuality, artificial modes of reproduction and transferring the responsibility of raising children to the state.22  Such solutions are not acceptable to most women themselves and can only create a perpetual battlefield for men and women detrimental to human society itself.

Contemporary India

All these layers of thought live in today’s India.  Women have traditionally been the repository of culture, the pivot in the stability and permanence of the home and family and the carriers of the values of society.  Many have internalized these values and sought meaning in their lives by devoting themselves to their roles of daughters, wives and mothers.  Others have made religion their anchor.  Yet others have found the task of breaking out of the mold so daunting that they have suppressed their desires and restricted their aspirations although  the world outside beckons temptingly. This creates contradictions in personality often leading to even physical disorders that have deep rooted psychosomatic causes.

The challenge is how to grow into the new roles without abandoning the spirit and wisdom contained in the cultural heritage of tradition, how to cast off the  dead issues of a culture and add on new ones.  The contours of the world have changed dramatically and they have also changed the shape of the home and the hearth. However, it is in the very nature of evolution that even when outdated ideas and institutions have been abandoned because they have lost their validity and meaning their residue or substratum remains in a period of transition and a culture continues to be identified with it.  The trouble is that we are always in transition and hence always in contradictions.   It is not that when the women were confined to domesticity they were not a part of the labor force or that they did not engage in meaningful economic activity both within and outside the home.  It is that no matter what they did, they were regarded as primarily daughters, wives and mothers with the chief duty towards the family whatever else they did being secondary.

Today women are demanding a much greater and an autonomous rather than an affiliative role for themselves.  As Indira Parekh and Pulin Garg point out they are  now entering the world of profession like any man in which they have to carve out a niche for themselves in society and build their careers  in the face of stiff competition  giving themselves a personal identity independent of their relative roles.  For the first time there is a very high motivation in women to experience for themselves and be accepted as autonomous beings outside of their familial networks. 23

Some would argue that this increased visibility of women has created its own challenges.  One is sexual permissiveness and the breakdown of family values.  It has increased crimes against women.  There was 29.2% rise in 1998 relative to 1994 and 92.25% increase relative to 1990.24  A more detailed analysis can be done.  Society itself is taking steps to remedy the situation and will continue to do so.

Women themselves, however, also have to come to terms with their fears and anxieties both in their persons and in their familial and social networks.  There are guilt feelings of being inadequate and divided both in the home front and at the workplace and hence apprehensions of failing in both.  There are fears of accusing fingers, breakdown of marital relationships and uncertainties of the future but the clock cannot be put back.  The new cultural milieu makes it impossible for  women to ignore  a world beyond that could become their world.  We have to face the emergence of these rising aspirations and we can only do it in two ways.  One is through anger at the inequities meted out to as women both in the past and in  the present.  This ire can propel us into acquiring social roles of equality but it would be done with so much bitterness that it would lack both meaning and dignity.  The other is through a sharing of this internal dialogue of the self with others so that the rancor dissolves and unity can be created in which a new ethos of a shared vision, a new meaning of being and becoming can be created.  It is to add a new element to the cultural heritage.  All epic heroes journey to hell and back before they can experience a new wisdom and freedom to travel to new horizons.  Without such harmony, we could once again become prisoners of should and musts as we did in the past.  These would undoubtedly be different shoulds and musts but equally enchaining and debilitating.

As I conclude my dialogue with myself I feel that women’s issues will, like other issues in India, be eventually resolved through the essential spirit of the Indian civilization which is not confrontationist but assimilative.  It has always transformed the alien into the familiar and Indianized the forms and ideas that first entered the country as social imports.  Hence, women will continue to become more visible and they will find a method of doing so without tearing the social fabric apart.  There are pockets of strident protest but a far more widespread quiet revolution seems to be already on its way.

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