File spoon-archives/seminar-13.archive/south-asian-women_1995-1996/seminar-13.nov95-mar96, message 31

Date: Sat, 25 Nov 1995 09:17:37 -0500 (EST)
Subject: something to talk about...
To: seminar-13-AT-jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU

(this is Radhika Gajjala reporting from behind a screen in Pittsburgh...)

Okay, everyone,
here's something to "chew" on and fight over, critique etc....
(take your time - if we get to discussing this even by January that 
should be okay - the seminar can still be considered as "active":-))

The following is perhaps my reading of various texts - if you have read 
the works of the authors cited, fine. If not - please react/respond to my 
reading if u wish. The opinions I may have expressed are derived from a 
reading of the texts... If anyone needs any kind of clarification - i 
will try my best to explain further (or maybe someone else who has read 
the primary texts will explain it better or differently than i would/did)

here goes -

Indian women and National Identity
      Partha Chatterjee shows how the separation of social space into
inner/outer, "*ghar* and *bahir*, the home and the world", was used by
the Indian Nationalist movement in its "resolution" of not only the
"women's question", but also as a solution which could accommodate
Western discourses of material "progress" while maintaining an inner
"essential" Indianness through the domain of "home" where the "superior"
Indian spirituality would be guarded by the womenfolk. The problem for
Indian nationalism was to attain material "progress" through the use of
modern Western civilization's techniques while staking claim to some
essential "Indianness" that would set Indians apart from the colonizers
(Sangari & Vaid, 1989). Nationalism linked political independence with
"virtually every aspect of the material and spiritual life of the people"
(Sangari & Vaid, 1989,pg.238), therefore the home sphere had to be
protected from "Western" influences. 
      Woman was considered to be the "keeper" of the sanctity of home."And
so we get an identification of social roles by gender to correspond with
the separation of the social space into ghar and bahir" (Sangari and
Vaid, 1989, pg.239).This would be proof that, even though European power
had subjugated India because of its "superior  material culture", it had
not succeeded in penetrating the essential identity of the spiritual East
(Chatterjee, 1989). 
      The woman, then is a visual, cultural symbol (object), preserving
the spiritual essence of Indianness. And the colonizers cannot be allowed
to encroach in the "inner sanctum" symbolized by the woman. This image
is also necessary for the immigrant Indian community's imagined world to
seem real. The messages posted on Soc.culture.indian reflect this
ideology - both overtly and covertly (see Appendix). 
      As Partha Chatterjee points out, Indian Nationalist ideology made
a place for the "new woman" who was  subjected to a patriarchy which was
different from "traditional", indigenous patriarchy (a form of patriarchy
which was seen as possible only in the "backward" families of the
villages and laborers etc.). When Indian Nationalists endorsed the reform
of "degenerate" conditions of women, they meant that women would be
allowed "modern school education" only to the extent that it would make
the woman socially acceptable within "modern" social circles and to the
extent that it made her a "better" housewife and mother and so on.  And
even when it was necessary for the middle-class woman to step into the
public sphere for financial or other reasons, her superior "spiritual"
signs of femininity would "protect" her from the evils of the "outside".
The woman was placed on a pedestal and worshipped as a Goddess, and this
image "served to erase her sexuality in the world outside the home"
(Chatterjee, 1989). 
      According to this description, for Indian men, adapting to a life-
style which allows women to enter the public sphere is a survival tactic.
Sumit Sarkar (1985)points out, with regard to nationalist ideology in
India, that the concern for women's conditions at that time was motivated
through a fear of "social ostracism and isolation" rather than a genuine
felt need to change the condition of women. Men allowed "a limited and
controlled emancipation of wives", since this was seen as "a personal
necessity for survival in a hostile social world." The same words can be
used to describe the attitude of Indian men to the social and material
need to adapt to their wives joining the work-force. In fact, in the U.S.
the pressure for a woman to demonstrate that she is indeed "modern" in
the sense of being one of the "new women" (Chatterjee, 1989) is extreme,
and sometimes even causes domestic violence and other forms of social and
emotional abuse. The Indian men "don't mind" that their wives work, study
or dress in Western clothes as long as, within the "inner sanctum" of the
home, the wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, mother recognizes "her place"
and stays put, without allowing "Western" ideas like feminism to encroach
in the "inner sanctum" of her spiritual and essentially Indian mind (thus
polluting the atmosphere at home). The position of "Westernized" South
Asian women (i.e. at least educated either in a postcolonial system or
a Western system of education, if not pursuing any career), remains
      Equating the empowerment of self within society with
"Westernization" blocks out various options of agency for the South
Asian/Indian woman in many ways. By isolating the notion of "agency" and
associating it with the Western liberal and humanist tradition alone, we
lose sight of the fact that, whatever label we give to it, the erasure
of the notion of agency functions, in practice, most powerfully through
emotion, at an interpersonal level. Whatever the "theory" used in support
of the notion that we have no "choice" or agency - be it religious
fatalism, postmodern notions, or any other doctrine, it is when we are
repeatedly told that we are powerless, and are unable to find any
interpersonal validation for our feelings of dissatisfaction (which
remain at the level of affect, "outside the sentence" ) that we come to
believe that we are indeed without agency. Resistance manifests itself
at an interpersonal level, and when the option for expressing
dissatisfaction within the interpersonal sphere is blocked out through
various forms of theorizing (whether we call it "ideology" or "religion"
or any other form of "ism"), organized resistance becomes quite

      The problem that Partha Chatterjee writes of in his essay on the
"Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question". On the one hand, while
the relation between feminism and "Indianness" (or "South Asianness"
etcetera) is a problem, so is the relation between Western feminism and
not-Western women's issues. However, while she may resist the labelling
and theorizing of Western feminism concerning the monolithic "third world
woman" as oppressed and deprived (she in fact sometimes has more access
to material and cultural capital than some Western women), she too is
guilty of treating some other Indian women of lesser social and material
privilege than her as "politically immature women who need to be versed
and schooled in the ethos of western feminism." (Amos & Parmar, 1984). 
       "There is no space from which the sexed subaltern subject can
speak," decides Spivak in her essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?". While
there may be little doubt that the gendered subaltern does not have a
space to speak from, even the sexed not-subaltern does not have an
unambiguous and non-problematic space to speak from. What, for example,
is the role that feminism plays within Indian society. Is it a mere
"intellectual pastime" for the women with education and material
privilege? What problems does the not-subaltern Indian/South Asian woman
face when confronted with Western feminism's monolithic construction of
the "third world woman"? 
      While on the one hand, Western feminist narratives regarding third
world women seem to echo colonial discourses (only in this case, instead
of the white man attempting to rescue the brown woman from the brown man,
it is a case of the white woman  trying to "enlighten" the "politically
immature" brown woman), Indian/South Asian feminists are faced with a
problem in relation to their national identities. Feminism is equated
with "Westernization" in both these discourses. Spivak writes of this
problem in relation to the practice of sati within colonial India.
      Faced with the dialectically interlocking sentences that are
      constructible as `White men are saving brown women from brown
      men' and `The women wanted to die', the postcolonial woman
      intellectual asks the question of simple semiosis - What does
      this mean? - and begins to plot a history.(Can the Subaltern
      Annanya Bhattacharjee (1992) writes, with regard to accusations that
are made against diasporic feminist organizations like Sakhi8, that
accusations against westernised and/or feminist women "have their source
in the kind of identities immigrant communities assume". In her essay,
she examines the problematic ways in which an immigrant community creates
a space for itself in a country where it is looked upon as a "minority".
She feels that the idea of nation as an ideological force is central to
the creation of immigrant community identities. Like Partha Chatterjee
did in his much cited essay "The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's
Question" (Chatterjee, 1990), she too links "nation-ness" to the "women's
      The migrant, on entering a new country, is displaced. The almost
unquestioning identification with the bourgeoisie within her/his home-
nation that gave her/him the anonymity needed for her/him to be able to
name the Other within his/her home-society (that is, the Other of the
bourgeois Self) while s/he herself remained part of the un-named,
shapeless bourgeois community that "represented" the whole nation is no
longer possible. The migrant realizes with an unpleasant jolt that *s/he*
is the Other. Bhattacharjee's article explains how an immigrant community
that "now perceives itself (and is perceived) to be in a position defined
by difference" leads the immigrant community to try and grasp "for
familiar essentials in whose shadows it can regain the power to remain
un-named." The immigrant thus finds that s/he is now part of a "minority
group". A group that is subordinate to the native bourgeoisie
      Her article also examines immigrant Indian organizations'
construction of an "Indian identity". She writes that the "vision of
these all-India organizations" is that of a "unified front of Indians"
who maintain their "Indian culture and heritage" within the United
States. Bhattacharjee sees the lack of definition in these kind of
phrases as demonstrating the `ex-nominating operation'. She argues that
there is a "persistence" of the habit of what Roland Barthes' (Barthes,
1988) terms "ex-nomination" within the community of
immigrants/expatriates living in the United States (Bhattacharjee,1992). 
"Indian culture and the unity of India is for all Indians to possess by
the sheer magic of their being Indians; it permeates their essence"
      The image of woman is an important aspect of the construction of an
imagined "national culture". Even within India, it is the "Indian woman"
constructed in the image of the historical Hindu-Aryan woman (Sangari &
Vaid, 1989), who is seen as carrying the true Indian culture forward into
future generations. She is "a metaphor for the purity, the chastity, and
the sanctity of the Ancient spirit that is India" (Bhattacharjee, 1992).
This image of the true Indian woman is grounded on the "myth of the Vedic
golden age" (Sangari & Vaid, 1989, pg.7). This myth, which was revived
mostly during the period of India's independence struggle is based on
Orientalist revivals and translations of the Vedic texts.  
      The bourgeoisie that rose into power after independence continued
to develop these ideologies of `Hindu' and `Indian' womanhood. Uma
Chakravarty, in her article "Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?
Orientalism, Nationalism and a Script for the Past" (1989),discusses the
"invention" of "Indian" tradition which began in the 19th century. A
particular kind of past, which became the basis for the construction of
a particular kind of "Indian womanhood" was constructed during this
period. Chakravarti writes that, from the days of Raja Rammohun Roy
onwards, there was a limited focus on only the upper sections of society
portraying the "Aryan" Indian woman as the ideal. During this period, the
"past itself was a creation of the present and these compulsions
determined which elements were highlighted and which receded from the
conscious object of concern in historical and semi-historical writings."
      According to Orientalist discourses, it is the Western woman who
aims for "emancipation" and the genuine "Bharatiya Nari" (Indian woman),
the bastion of Hindu culture is seen as the submissive "worshipper of
husband" Spirituality and Womanhood became a crucial part of
the formation of a nationalist bourgeoisie. 
      The immigrant Indian woman in the U.S. is required to conform to the
above image of "Indian woman" at least in the so-called "private sphere". 
In the United States, the immigrant Indian bourgeoisie feels itself to
be in a position similar to the Indian middle-class before India's
independence. In a position of subordination to the White skins. A
superior moral stance and an almost fanatical insistence on culture
within the so-called private sphere helps elevate the immigrant Indian
      Amit S. Rai  discusses how the vision of the "New Hindu woman" is
central to the construction of a Hindu Diasporic identity on internet
newsgroups like alt.hindu (Rai, 1995). He quotes from several posts on
such newsgroups and electronic bulletins. The editor of alt.hindu is said
to have reprinted excerpts like the following (refer appendix for some
more examples from soc.culture.indian) - is the Hindu wife and mother who has precociously
      maintained  the customs and traditions we brought from India
      over 100 years...But still a woman's most subtle and sacred
      role as mother, wife and "best friend" will never be
      diminished by a new-found more self-assertive identity... [W]e
      should not attempt to "be like men" - as many Western
      feminists would have us (quoted in Rai, 1995). 



for third-world-women archives, 


Driftline Main Page


Display software: ArchTracker © Malgosia Askanas, 2000-2005