Friday, September 18, 2009

Eloquent Silences: Why Do Women Keep Silent in Public Sphere?

A Discussion: Part One

RECENTLY I was involved in a pretty long discussion at fourth-estate critique, a Google group, which went on for many days, and I realize some very interesting points emerged out of.

Here I post an edited version of it for the benefit of my readers, with thanks to the participants for permission to use their comments here:

N P Chekkuty: In the self-introductions here, I found two comments which gave me reasons to think:

1.Often feels that [this forum] is highly andocentric. (Anandi)
2. As feminists have pointed out, politicized spaces require personal time to spare, machismo, ego, gawkiness, and willingness to get involved into online standoffs – attributes historically associated more with masculinity rather than femininity (C S Chandrika.)

I was somewhat confused and intrigued why do they feel it that way. Is there something in this forum and its topics and ways of discussion that make women feel aloof, uninterested? C S Chandrika gives a hint, describing it as a politicized space, historically associated with masculine.

I do feel we may have to look elsewhere for the reason why open spaces are predominantly male spaces, or perhaps why do open spaces are given a wide berth by women in our society. I feel it has much more to do with the social life in Kerala and the deep feudal mindset we still do nourish even among the progressives.

I found some interesting observations in Amartya Sen's book, Argumentative Indian, where he tackles the question, whether females were excluded from our argumentative/political tradition.

He seems to think, No. He points out that the Indian National Congress had its first president (Sarojini Naidu, 1925) 50 years before UK's ruling party had a woman as their chief (Margaret Thatcher, 1975.)

Then he goes back in history: In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, there is a great debate with Yagnavalkya in which his stoutest opponent is Gargi. Another major interlocutor is Maithreyi, whose point about the individual wealth and personal achievement proved to be a starting point for his own research on growth and welfare, he says.

So if women could be fiercely argumentative in the past, why not today?

Kavitha Balakrishnan: As far as I understand, one should take into consideration that this forum is so far limited to 'a class of people' and 'a class of topics', like international relations, economics, current affairs etc. A forum mainly of economists, diplomats and journalists, etc.

Yet anybody can break in when feel like, when finds a topic of one's area of expertise, when get time, etc. But no guarantee that they will be treated and taken further with due importance that they imagine they will get in 'cultural circles'.

But why should it necessarily be? This is not a 'representative' forum of diverse communities or identities. This is a very limited forum but made out of resourceful, informative and scholarly people in some ways or the other, yet with lots of limitations to initiate an inclusive attitude to many things that are yet out of one's academic rigors and logics. So I think this is not simply a gender problem; even more serious than that: the limits of our reasoning and intellectual articulations....

N P Chekkutty: In a personal note, a friend says:

As a marunadan Malayali from Trissur, with a deep sense of nostalgia and pride for my land and its people, this paradox has been extremely intriguing. Kerala is no Bihar. Women are educated, financially independent; but disempowered, lack freedom and choices.

But let me ask: Is it true?

Peripherally, it appears women in Kerala are much better compared to other states, statistics also say the same. Hence naturally, they should have been more empowered, more active politically and socially, though what we witness in Kerala today is a reverse trend, the women returning the safety of marakkudas or all-covering purdahs in public.

Every day as I travel in the city buses in Kozhikode, I see with a sense of helplessness the larger and larger number of Muslim women who have now started covering their entire face, leaving just a hole for the eyes, something which I had never seen in the past. I was at my village for the Onam and I found women with similar dress in buses and markets while in the past they were merrily moving about in their colourful kachithuni and long blouses.

Then in trains that travel through Potta, I see the same phenomenon. Larger and larger number of women, frenzied in their ways and unconcerned about their surroundings. Pay a visit to the Mata's ashram or Sri Sri's classes, the same is the scene. Women abound, they make the public space in all those places mainly.

I do feel strongly that this de-politicization of women and their estrangement from social and political action has deeply wounded our society. In Maradu and Nadapuram, I had seen the dangerous portents of it, as one cannot help the conclusion that one of the primary forces behind the rabid communalization of and sectarianism in the society there happen to be women. (In the first instance, it is a Hindutva variety, while in the second it is predominantly secular and Marxist.)

It is for women to tell us why do they go more and more to such depths, cut and run from our common lives? It does them no good, it does the society no good.

Neelan Neelakantan: The whole Kerala of society is going back adorning themselves with signs which were once considered reactionary and rejected. Poonool is back! Chandanam is replaced by Raktha Chandanam, which one finds very violent a sign. Youngsters with jeans and Raktha Chandanam on the forehead make a strange sight these days. Purdah is common. When the real left politics and ideology gets weakened, all the reactionary ritualistic signs will re-appear. They will be renamed as new "cultural identities’ and justified ...

John Samuel: I wonder whether the kind of trend you have mentioned is specific to one gender- women.

In fact, the "patriarchal" power is perpetuated by the men - who control religious establishment, consumer stores and institutions of spirituality and religion. It seems there is nothing new in the fact that women seem to be more in to "bhakti" mode or more manifestly religious or spiritual. This also may have to do with ‘family' behavioral pattern (again perpetuated by a patriarchy). And there is nothing new about the trend- about relatively more spiritual/religious inclination among women. This aspect requires more serious research in relation to the constructed roles of gender in different societies and its relation to "cultural", "spiritual" "creative", "reproductive" and "fertility" etc.

There is indeed a revival of religion- in its conservative as well as consumerist avatars. And this new revival of religion - in institutional, political and market varieties- is a larger trend. So how can one link this only with "gender"- or say that "why women are like that?" Of course, we tend to see what we look for.

The new revival of religion- and "spiritual" customer-care oriented new market approach has a lot to do with new sense of alienation and insecurity - in the midst of economic growth, increasing disintegration of community/family spaces, saturation of "secular" dreams, and increasing sense of social, economic and political insecurity, as well as political reactions to perceived sense of marginalization, exclusion etc. So it is nothing peculiar to Kerala. This is happening all over Africa, Latin America, parts of Asia, Europe and the USA.

The new revivalism is also partly a reactionary response to and partly a byproduct of aggressive economic globalization. These days there are many "drive in Churches"- very customer-care oriented, well-marketed, no-strings attached- of course one is expected to pay for a well-organized/managed "Sunday" service. There is no-community or real communion. They are the new service providers in a new market place- because there is new demand for a particularly packaged "psycho-comfort," "feel-good" product- available, accessible and affordable.

We need serious discussions and explorations about the "gender spaces" in Kerala. We need to explore the apparent dichotomies and tensions of such gender-power relationship in the ‘public’, ‘private’ and ‘intimate’ spaces.

There are serious contradictions in Kerala between the perceived ‘empowerment’ of women- taking the social development and gender-development indicators and real ‘disempowerment’- particularly in the private spaces of family and ‘intimate’ spaces of bedrooms, though seemingly ‘empowered’ in the public sphere.

(To be continued.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on personal achivement. It should be very much helpfull

Karim - Creating Power