Redefining women`s role in society

  • 14/02/1994

Redefining women`s role in society ANGER should, ideally, lead to introspection. But all the anger generated by struggles women have waged in India over the last 15 years has not yielded a mature body of thought. So when someone like Gabriele Dietrich sets out systematically to examine issues like caste, class, sex, religion, development, science and ecology from the perspective of the Indian women's movement through a collection of essays, it is significant. The work, in fact, can be read as a critique of the Indian women's movement from within it.

First, a word on the author. Dietrich came to India in 1972. When the young German activist talked about the women's question, she was told that it was a "Western problem". Dietrich recognised that it was not. She adopted Indian citizenship and made Madurai her base. Strangely enough, for someone who had impeccable Marxist credentials, she was drawn to religion: "I often felt close to Simone Weil who felt too secular to enter the church but was religious enough to be a mystic..." But Dietrich adds: "I am convinced that what unites all of us is the struggle against communalism and religious chauvinism, which is one of the acutest dangers in our national process..."

Communal riots In an essay entitled "Women and Religion", she states that women, instead of allowing communalist forces to hijack women's issues, should try to discover their own religious history across communal barriers. To her mind, the movement has failed to interact with people at the socio-economic and political levels at which communal riots are born. This is perhaps because the movement has confined itself to "women's issues" in the narrowest sense of the term. Dietrich also has little patience with the blinkered perspectives of women activists when it comes to questions of caste. In "Dalit Movements and Women's Movements", she decries the tendency to play down the caste factor and emphasise the unity among women as victims of violence. Yet, according to Dietrich, Dalit women suffer a violence that is in a category of its own.

To illustrate this point, she gives the reader, three case-studies of caste riots that occurred in Tamil Nadu in the late 1980s. Quoting Justice P N Bhagwati's observation that "rape is increasingly becoming a form of caste war", Dietrich urges the women's movement to confront the issue with seriousness. She also takes care to point out the definite need for Dalit movements to understand the insidious role of patriarchy in their communities.

Dietrich's contention is that the movement must go beyond the mere fact of victimisation and draw on the experiences and skills women have to reverse the situation. And this brings her to a vital question: How can a mode of production that does not depend on the exploitation of nature and labour power be created?

In the chapter entitled "Women, Ecology and Culture", in which she touches upon the work of various philosophers, sociologists, historians, environmentalists and women's theoreticians like Maria Mies, she develops on this theme. It is vital, she argues, that connections are worked out between the ecological crisis and the cultural one caused by a development model that is neocolonial, capitalist, patriarchal. It's a model that assaults the base for human material and spiritual survival and is destructive of both nature and culture. Tackling the ecological and cultural crises, then, becomes a survival issue "not only because environmental destruction is close to reaching a level where it is irreversible but also because the cultural crisis can lead either to fascism or to fragmentation and disintegration".

Another chapter in the book deals with a subject that's often banished from mainstream discourse: sexuality. Unfortunately, even though she states that sex is not a biological but a social event and is highly culture and gender-specific, Dietrich does not develop on this enough. However, there are some interesting observations she has gleaned. For instance, in Tamil, a man is supposed to have qualities like viram (bravery, virility and manliness), while a woman is meant to have thaymai (motherliness) and karpu(chastity). So while "masculine" values include sexual potency, "feminine" values deny and control sexuality.

And this is not all. As Dietrich points out, the analogy between control over land and control over women is strikingly expressed in speech and idiom, in Madurai district, a woman who remains unmarried will be called upputtarsu (unfit for cultivation), which is analogous to the term used for wasteland. She will also be called yarum sindamal irruk(one whom no man has cared to touch) and adangatheva(one who can't be controlled). Such a woman lives under constant threat of rape.

Patriarchy by definition upgrades men and downgrades women. It creates a class within a class. This is precisely why, according to Dietrich, the argument that women's struggles divide the working class has to be countered by the argument that it is patriarchy that divides women and women of the working class, while struggles against patriarchy unite the working class.

Alliances, then, become crucial. The Indian women's movement cannot fight alone. It has to join hands with ecological movements, unions in the unorganised sector and movements of Dalits and Adivasis.

Reflections, because it is basically a series of essays published over a period of time, sometimes tends to get repetitive and a trifle eclectic in its choice of sources. However, its strength lies in the scrupulous examination of issues that are normally left by the wavside in mainstroam policv making.

Pamela Philipose is a journalist.

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