LADY SHRI RAM COLLEGE FOR WOMEN, NEW DELHI, INDIA
Unique statements that are heard at young impressionable ages often stay rooted in memory and belief for prolonged periods of time. Whether these are iconic statements ensuing from the popular literature of the age, or adolescent catchphrases that come to represent the spirit and beliefs of an entire generation, the politics of language never fail to astonish, amuse and mesmerize. The transition from one phase of language to the next depicts the evolutionary nature of the human mind, and its desire for information and communication. However, the language that becomes liberating in this pursuit of knowledge is also imbued with subtle codes and mores that enable it to trap people into conformity and prescribed social conditioning. Studying literature and language over the last few years has given me an opportunity to rethink all the conventional tools that are used to convey action and feeling. The deconstruction of stories and the categorization of thought as an exercise is trying and exhausting but it often depicts how the tiniest detail in a sentence could either alter its meaning, or amplify it, based on the context. The application of such analytical deconstruction to the regular communication that one indulges in daily leads to some fascinating revelations of a society’s progression.
“Women can communicate alright but they can rarely articulate.”
I remember hearing something along these lines at a party my parents took me to as a child. The essence of the sentence had remained buried somewhere in the recesses of my mind, until I heard another such statement at my father’s reunion recently. ‘He who must not be named’ said something along the lines of, “the reason men don’t pay attention to everything that their wives say is because they’re so busy differentiating between the words which make sense and the words which don’t that they end up missing the rest of the conversation”. Both these statements left particularly deep impacts on my mind as I began to question the boundary between communication and articulation. To communicate, according to Webster’s dictionary is, “to convey knowledge of or information about : make known”, while to articulate is, “to express oneself readily, clearly, or effectively”. The former is arrogated to women who have been termed gossip mongers while the latter, right up till the 19th and 20th centuries, has effectively been the prerogative of male rationality.
Speaking from a personal perspective, as the daughter of a naval officer, I have been tossed and twirled with each wave of the sea and consequently have been forced to reposition myself accordingly, based on my father’s transfer from shore to shore. This constant uprooting paused for a considerable amount of time when we moved to Mumbai and stayed there for almost a decade. However our time there soon melted into a memory, as dad shifted bases and we tagged along, moving to the dreaded yet fascinating capital of the country. Delhi is a schizophrenic representation of the collective social consciousness of India. It is a place where the traditional can safely coexist with the modern, just as corruption can coexist with activism. The multiplicity of cultures unites into a blend of pure Indianness. Yet despite all this the one thing that the capital is famous (or rather infamous) for is its devastating crime rate, particularly with reference to crimes committed against women. The culture of a city which does not respect its women is no better than the culture of a city which openly subjugates them. The consciousness of such a city needs to be re-examined, de-prejudiced and cleansed. We need to go back to the roots of Greek comedy, and renew Lysistrata’s wool carding metaphor1 to re-examine the path society has picked. This need for a reappraisal of an ancient past is an example of the irony of the human condition that, while life moves on, a large part of humanity remains the same. Even today, we all ask the question that Draupadi2 raised years ago: are we free beings or are we still property to be pawned away and stripped of dignity by male authority?
Women in fiction, as Virginia Woolf repeatedly pointed out, are usually much grander than the reality of the domestic space that they embodied. The truth remains that all the Judith Shakespeares, Becky Sharps and Cleopatras in fiction remain confined to that invented space. The ‘real women’ are unable to transcend their narrative boundaries in a dystopian space, which denies them rationality. In such a reality, a female author was often treated with scorn or contempt, and refused the right to put down her thoughts in a coherent manner. Even today, in Delhi one can find a very interesting blend of opinions on female intelligence. There are some who claim that a woman is only fit for domestic duties, and must not cross the ‘Dehleez ’, 3 which would invite social ostracism and contempt. The other end of the spectrum involves radical feminists, who question the definition of “gender” and the arbitrariness of male supremacy while pushing for a cultural revolution and a conversion to matriarchy. The ‘In Betweeners’ are essentially forced to rotate like tops, swiveling between misogynists and ‘Feminazis’, depending on whichever perspective is dominant at the time. The repeated rapes that take place in the city constantly remind women about their frailty in a country that refuses their right to say ‘NO’. But the support that has been surging forth since the sixteenth December case is like a wave of resistance that refuses to be beaten down by a few perverse minds. However, despite the endearing mass of protests that have risen in defense of women’s rights, one still finds, embedded within the cultural conscience, (and exposed through the stereotypes that exist), certain demeaning and degrading perceptions of feminine ability in the sphere of Logos or Logic. Maybe this is why a majority of the students studying in IITs all over the country remain males and the women are sent off to complete degrees in art and literature. Whenever I look at the gendered nature of the educational division in our country, those words I heard long ago repeatedly return to haunt me. Women can communicate but cannot articulate. That such a distinctive prejudice is still deeply embedded in the cultural conscience of the people is evidenced by the fact that most stereotypes of Indian women either involve silenced partners, nagging wives, interfering busybodies, or beauty-obsessed crones. Each of the stereotypes typically depicts how women lack reasoning or understanding faculties. Such caricatures are an intricate part of popular culture (as evinced by the vamps in countless television serials), and yet like all satire, they raise larger issues. In this case the question that arises is the reduction of an entire gender into typified portraits of male aggrandization. They become the foils of their male counterparts and remain, as Mary Wollstonecraft once defined them, ‘intellectually children’.
In Delhi, however, I have seen a conscious attempt to move away from such stereotypes. In their own little way women all over the city rebel and refuse to conform. Whether it is by refusing to bow down to social pressure by wearing skirts, or raising their voices to stand up for each other through petitions and Women’s organizations, the recent solidarity and sisterhood that this city has seen is encouraging to say the least. While we still have a long way to go before we achieve social parity or manage to weed out the chauvinistic elements that ruin the social ethos, we are definitely on the path to progress. This can be seen in the very fact that LSR, a college for women, has been topping the college rankings for the last three years. In LSR, I found a place where like-minded women bonded over their ability to defy the stereotype by using the very faculty of reason which has been denied to them over the years. From Aphra Behn to Anita Desai, most women authors have been deemed frivolous, inconsequential or vulgar. Often denied formal training in classical literature or higher education, women have hitherto been intellectually marginalized. Yet with the emergence of the feminist movement and the modernization policy of independent India, there has been an improvement in the status of women and their bid for an equalized society. Post independence, there has been much work done in the field of women’s education. With pioneering figures like Sarojini Naidu at the helm, Indian society has made a shift from the dark ages of ignorance towards the light of equal knowledge. Now all that remains is the step which will ensure that women are allowed intellectual license, without the stigma of past associations impinging on the moment. We are yet a fledgling nation, newborn, by comparison to Western civilizations, and yet older than all the rest. Deep within our hearts, there remains a collective desire to progress beyond measure and beyond limit. Writing is one way to pen down this deep desire for intellectual parity and it is also the most powerful weapon which has been handed down for our use. The city’s women are all attempting to create change through the medium of social media and blogs, and someday maybe this articulation will end in action and women will roam the streets in a changed sociological parameter where their word holds as much emphasis as a man’s does. In conclusion, Jane Galvin Lewis’ quote “You don’t have to be anti-man to be pro-woman” seems the most sensible position, as articulation becomes a weapon for both freedom and confinement based on how society chooses to wield it.
1 From the Greek Comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes
2 Draupadi is a character from the Indian epic, the ‘Mahabharata’, which talks about an apocalyptic war that took place between the clan of the Purus, also known as the Bharatas. The failure of patriarchy and primogeniture led to a split within the Bharata family as the Kauravas (sons of Dhritirashtra) and Pandavas (sons of Pandu) competed for the throne. Draupadi is the wife of the five Pandavas, and she is gambled away by the eldest brother, King Yudhishtra in a game of dice after he has already lost his kingdom, his brothers and himself. Stripped of her caste and lineage she is dragged into the assembly hall by her brother-in-law, Dushasana, and an attempt is made to humiliate her publicly by ripping off her clothes. Her chastity protects her as the cloth regenerates and the shamed Kauravas are forced to admit defeat. Before the ‘Vastraharan’ or forced stripping begins though, Draupadi asks Yudhishtra “Whom did you lose first, yourself or me?”. He does not answer her as it was believed that a woman is her husband’s property, and if he loses himself he loses her too as she is akin to his slave. The question regarding women’s rights was not answered for the longest time, and even though there are laws for the safety of women in place now, the woman’s body, as viewed by perverted voyeurs, is as much a target of male pleasure as it was in the past.
3 Traditional Hindi term for defining the threshold of the house. Symbolically, once this is crossed, the woman has defied patriarchal authority and is liable to ostracism, isolation and punishment. It has often been used to depict the schism between modernity and tradition.