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India: We are caught between extremes of traditional and western perspectives on women

9 January 2013

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The Times of India, 9 January 2013

by Sudhir Kakar

Is a woman a person in the imagination of most Indian men, especially in the imagination that flows under the surface of consciousness? My answer is only a qualified ’yes’.

In a society that has traditionally defined a person through her relationships rather than her individuality, a woman is certainly a person when she is a mother, a daughter, a sister or a wife. Any woman who does not fit into these mental categories is a female, a ’stree’, who, in the notorious public pronouncement of a former president of India, Zail Singh, ’bhog ki cheez hai’ (is an object of enjoyment). Stripped of relational categories and just as an individual, a woman is not a person but an object, a body for male enjoyment.

This deprivation of personhood for the woman who has stepped out of relational categories is not something new but goes back to Indian antiquity. In Sanskrit and Tamil poems, the face of the ’nayika’ is always like a moon or lotus flower, eyes like water lilies or those of a fawn. She always stoops slightly from the weight of her full breasts, improbable in their rounded perfection. The waist is slim, with three folds, the thighs round and plump, like the trunk of an elephant or a banana tree. The navel is deep, the hips heavy.

She has become an object of lust that is evoked by looking at a woman in parts — and at the parts of a woman. In her modern reincarnation, she is the vamp of older Bollywood movies and the item girl of contemporary ones.

It then becomes understandable that one hastens to give relational honorifics to a woman one must perceive and respect as a person. Indira Gandhi and Jayalalithaa become ammas, Mamata Banerjee, didi, Mayawati, behen. It is also understandable why the common north Indian abuses related to mothers and sisters are so offensive. Unlike in the West, where the offensiveness lies in the accusation of incest, here the abuser is taunting the abused with having reduced the ’sacred’ body of the mother or sister to a ’bhog ki cheez’.

The problem is that so many women men now encounter in the public spaces of India’s cities and towns — to which both sexes have migrated in large numbers in the last few decades — such as those who have come into the cities to work or study, do not easily fit into the traditional mental categories of what constitutes a woman’s personhood. In their dress or deportment, these women cannot be accommodated to the relational blueprint of the woman that the men have carried in their minds since childhood.

Not perceived as persons, these women are automatically, without the intervention of thought or reflection, consigned to the ambivalent, despised category of the stree who is potentially a bhog ki cheez. The mental constructions i am speaking of are deep-seated, often less than conscious, and are inculcated in early childhood by the family that is tasked with conveying the ideology of gender and gender relations. As a famous child psychologist once remarked, "An infant is born without a history but soon, the family will give it theirs."

The western concept of a woman being a person in her own right, an individual, with unalienable individual rights, is part of a modernity that is making inroads into India — and clashing with traditional ideas of when a woman may be deemed a person. But what is being more easily embraced, since it does not clash with the traditional markings of the male imagination, is a pernicious western idea stealthily accompanying the notion of a woman’s individuality. This is of the individual body being pre-eminently an arena of enjoyment.

We see the enthusiastic embrace of this idea in the imitation of western mores of fashion, beauty and sexual conduct that pervade the media, entertainment and advertising industries. For many men, the objectification of the woman’s body is, then, not something regressive but a part and parcel of being ’modern’.

The Indian civilisational idea that defined women in relational terms and placed a large majority in an asexual limbo was too extreme. But to replace this with another extreme, the western idea of the body as an amusement park, a place of sexual recreation, has only plunged us from the frost of sexual inhibition into the fire of its violent excesses.

The recognition of individuality constituting the personhood of a woman is a western civilisational gift which makes us acknowledge that the Indian woman is not only a person when she is relational but also, and in our context, especially when she is an individual. But we also need to recognise that the western sexual excesses of television channels, video films and internet sites which we are in the process of aping are perversions of individualism, not its essence.

The writer is a psychoanalyst and novelist.


The above article from The Times of India is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use