By Geeta Thatra,
First Year, M.A. in Women’s Studies
“Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within” – Stephen Jay Gould
‘Reproduction’ as conceptualized by Natural Philosophy or Science is essentially a biological phenomenon, which would mean conception and perpetuation of species. In this piece, we shall try to go beyond this biological understanding and critically evaluate the theories and processes of reproduction.
It has been argued that reproductive technologies (both which inhibit conception and which facilitate conception) have violated women’s bodies. Here, I am extending the argument further to state that it is not only the latest reproductive technologies but reproductive theories and the process of reproduction itself that causes and results in ‘violence’ on women. Having made such a bold statement, it would be important to explain the meaning of ‘violence’.
Violence is broadly conceived as use of physical force leading to varied levels of control, damage or violation. It would be important to include violence as a psychological force leading to emotional abuse. Also, violence could be both overt and/or covert and it could be caused at both metaphysical and/or bodily level. Having broadened the definition of violence, it would be interesting to note the claims made by modern-western-science as being non-violent, progressive and useful for human well-being. Let us try to evaluate such claims in the context of reproduction.
Biology and Reproductive Theories
There has been a systematic subordination of women over these 3000 years, from the beginnings of early Western philosophical thought, which could be located in the inconsistent theories of reproduction and biology proposed by Aristotle (384-322 BCE).
As per the Aristotelian model of reproduction, the metaphors associated in the process of reproduction with the male are that of a creator, carpenter, crafts-person, artist, generator, active, as one who is contributing to the ‘form’ and ‘motion’ of the offspring; while female is associated with the work-place, a source of raw-material, passive, as one who is contributing the ‘matter’. He has further shown that the contribution of the male is superior, divine, creative and in that sense man is the true parent of the child; while the female is only the nurse to the seed and hence makes an inferior and least significant contribution in the process of procreation.
Aristotelian theories of biology and reproduction are based on the assumption of women’s biological inferiority. One is that the “proper form” of human is the male, as expressed by Aristotle, “The female is, as it were, a mutilated male.” and the other is that the female embryo is caused by deviation from nature i.e., “Woman is a misbegotten man, resulting from some defect in the heat of the generative process.”
This metaphysical understanding of the biology and reproduction of Aristotle’s times has been carried forward by many classical theorists. Although some philosophers have contrasted their views with Aristotle, in terms of the female making ‘some’ contribution to the generative process, but they have continued to hold that such a contribution is ‘inferior’. Galen (129-200 CE) has equated the male genitals with the female genitals and argued that the internal location of the female genitals is due to the ‘arrested development’ of the female and is thus “imperfect” and “mutilated”.
Such theories have dominated the Western medical science for over a millennium and the assumption of women’s inferiority has influenced scientific observations & explanations and also that the scientific theories reflect the attitudes and values of their authors. One could dismiss these metaphors as existing only at a theoretical level; however I would suggest that these metaphors are a part of our consciousness, which have been internalized by men, women and neighboring genders, leading to structural violence at a corporeal level. Such structuring of power has become possible and continues to remain, due to the legitimacy provided by the institution of science.
‘Reproduction’ in the popular understanding would involve a process of conception, child bearing and child rearing. All these processes have essentially become the responsibility of women and yet their contribution is considered as ‘insignificant’ and ‘inferior’, which to my understanding is violence on women. I do acknowledge that in our context, the symbol of the ‘mother’ and ‘motherhood’ is celebrated, which further places responsibility and compulsion on women to conceive and bear children.
Further, the entire responsibility of contraception lies on women and thus frees men (except men’s condoms but how many men agree to use them?) which is again based on the ‘social norm’ that reproduction is women’s responsibility.
Technology cannot be the only solution to social problems. Contraceptives or other reproductive technologies offered by modern science, which claim to be empowering, liberating and offering a ‘choice to women’ is in fact causing serious harm to women’s health and their well-being.
Further, there is a total dismissal of women’s (or any other ‘subjects’) expression of their ‘pain’ or ‘struggle’ in their everyday existence in non-scientific language. If technology can offer some benefit to women then the requirement is of ‘birth control methods’ as against the ‘population control methods’ – such as the family planning programme, which have been coercive, violent and inhuman.
While acknowledging the need for contraception, there is also a need to provide women a better understanding, strength, autonomy and control over their body. Also, men need to take equal responsibility with women in the process of birth control or alter ways of love making, which could lead us to have new relationships, based on confidence, mutual-respect, responsibility and equality.
Pre Menstrual Syndrome (PMS)
Research on PMS has suggested that premenstrual women could experience ‘symptoms’, as high as 150, in this phase and that it adversely affects their interactions with family, work, law and environment. What this implies is that this cyclical changes in behaviour within women is a ‘deviation from the norm’- the norm here being the male body, which does not experience cycles.
Further, it also implies that the non-feminine and ‘negative’ aspects of female behaviour prior to menstruation are regarded as ‘deviant’, ‘undesirable’, ‘abnormal’ and ‘diseased’. The most challenging aspect of such medical research is the internalization of the ‘syndrome’ by women themselves, which leads to an acknowledgement that they would require medical attention to be “cured”.
Under the garb of ‘scientific knowledge’, these assumptions of how bodies must behave (read: the male body) then get generalized, quantified, homogenized and categorized into “symptoms” by the ‘objective’ and ‘legitimizing’ scientific community. Such assumptions and articulations are very much a process of social construction of the woman as the ‘Other’ (Simon de Beauvoir), reinforcing the subordinate status of women.
Constructions through language and use of metaphors create certain norms about how to behave and enact out lives- for both men and women. Anyone deviating from this norm/s is considered abnormal and diseased in popular perceptions.
Religion and science have not helped matters by establishing a linear relationship between sex and reproduction (that is sex is had only for reproduction) and thus further cementing the notion that peno-vaginal sex between a man and a woman is the only legitimate form of sexual relationship. Thus, any other form of sexual act, desire or sexualities is marginalised and subjected to violence.
Although a woman’s choice is ‘constructed’, it needs to be respected. The fact that women have less or no choice of procreation is itself a form of violence. Further, women have also been violated within marriages with the existence of ‘marital rape’. There can be no denial that men have exercised enormous power over women’s bodies through controlling their labour, sexuality and reproduction.
‘Violence’ has thus become an intrinsic part of the conceptualization of reproductive theory and an integral part in the process of reproduction, which has direct implications on women’s lives and bodies. Such violence is structural, systematic, fundamental, conceptual and corporeal. The struggle of feminist scholarship and practices is to win the minds of those women, (including men and neighboring genders), perhaps the majority, who are constrained and oppressed by internalized ‘scientific’ judgments about our presumed biological limitations.
1. ‘The Weaker Seed: The Sexist Bias of Reproductive Theory’ by Nancy Tuana
2. ‘The Premenstrual Syndrome – “Dis-easing” the Female Cycle’ by Jacquelyn N. Zita
3. ‘Women’s Agenda for New Millennium’ by Chayanika Shah
4. ‘Reproductive Technologies and Violation of Women’s Bodies’ by Lakshmi Lingam
The 6th Dr. Ambedkar Memorial Lecture (AML) is on “Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s Thoughts on Women’s Emancipation” and the lecture will be delivered by renowned sociologist, Dr. Sharmila Rege.
She has done extensive work in the fields of Sociology of Gender, Social Theory, Dalit Studies and Cultural Studies. She is currently the Director of the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, in the University of Pune.
The lecture is intended to deliberate on the issues of women from both Dalit and women’s movements. Linking up with the present scenario, the lecture would attempt to throw light on women’s issues from the perspective of Dr. Ambedkar and his role in women’s emancipation.
Tata institute of Social Sciences,
Convention Centre, Naoroji Campus,
Saturday, January 9, 2010
Timing: 5pm- 9pm
Here’s how the theme of the lecture has been conceptualised.
“We shall see better days soon and our progress will be greatly accelerated if male education is persuaded side by side with female education…”[*]
Dr. Ambedkar – the determined fighter and a deep scholar, secured the highest academic honors from some of the most prestigious universities of the world. The strongest dalit leader of modern India who stood against Indian unjust society and faught for Dalits rights (Women, SC, ST, and Minorities) to have emerged till date, he represented the dalits at several national and international forums, at a time when they were deprived from various aspects of life.
He went ahead to become the chairman of the Drafting Committee and drafted the Constitution incorporating the concerns of all sections of the nation. He worked on wide range of issues concerning dalits. He made significant efforts to lead the society s on the path of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
Dr Ambedkar believed in the strength of women and their role in the process of social reform. His academic paper ‘Caste in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’ specifically talks about women and states that “there is no divine or natural cause of origin of caste but Brahmins of ancient India craftily designed it by enclosing their class through means of controlling and subjugating their woman.” He also made women’s issue as an integral part of his fortnightly newspapers – Mooknayak and Bahiskrit Bharat.
The historic Mahad Satyagraha witnessed participation of three hundred women along with their male counterparts. Addressing another meeting of about 3000 women, he said,
“I measure the progress of community by the degree of progress which women had achieved. Let every girl who marries stand by her husband, claim to be her husband’s friend and equal, and refuse to be his slave. I am sure if you follow this advice, you will bring honour and glory to yourselves.”
He strongly advocated for family planning measures for women in Bombay Legislative Assembly. In 1942, being a Labour Minister of Executive Council of Governor General, he introduced a Maternity Benefit Bill. He provided several provisions in the constitution for protecting the welfare and civil rights of women. He introduced the Hindu Code Bill in the Parliament and highlighted the issues women’s property rights. The bill received strong opposition from many political leaders. In turn, Dr. Ambedkar resigned from the cabinet expressing his discontent over non acceptance of woman’s rights by the parliament.
Besides, he highlighted the issues of Muslim women. His secular perspective is known through his thoughts on ‘Purdah’ (Veil) system, religious conversions and legal rights for Muslim women. In short, along with the depressed class women, his thoughts for emancipation of all the women are expressed with same allegiance.
Locating Dalit Women in Ambedkar’s Thoughts
Women bearing the dual identity of dalit and women and belonging to low economic strata, undergo double marginalization and triple subjugation in society. The patriarchal nature of the religious systems restricts the development of women and reduces them merely to a pleasure deriving entity for men. The practices like child marriage, opposition to widow re-marriage, sati and other such practices are employed to subjugate women and religious texts and scriptures are referred to justify these acts.
1970s witnessed two powerful movements- the Dalit Panther Movement and Women’s Movement. They provided a platform to voice out people’ issues but both the movements did not articulate the issues of downtrodden amongst the downtrodden i.e. dalit women. In spite of being an active supporter and an integral part, their issues were sidelined from the entire process of agitation.
Though the problems of dalits are far from being resolved, Ambedkar Memorial Lecture (AML) envisages the need to spread awareness by evoking curiosity about his thoughts on women.
This year’s Ambedkar Memorial Lecture is being organized by students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences on the thoughts of Dr. Ambedkar on women’s emancipation. The aim is to learn about Ambedkar’s philosophy concerning women and ways of incorporating them in the political process for building a just society.
The lecture would aim towards learning the factors on missing dalit women’s issues from both dalit and women’s movement. Linking up with the present scenario, the lecture would look forward to throw a light on women’s issues, particularly of dalit women through the perspective of Dr. Ambedkar.
We seek to learn more on women emancipation and more importantly, about Dr. Ambedkar’s enduring principles to solve the problems of half the world.
[*] Dr. Ambedkar’s words during his studies at New York
82 years ago, on this day, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and his comrades burnt a copy of the Manusmriti at the small town of Mahad where they had gathered to protest the segregation of water. Decades later, dalit feminists, in recognition of the tremendous symbolic significance of Ambedkar’s act, have decided to call this day the Indian Women’s Liberation Day. Through this post, we pay our tribute to Dr. Ambedkar and his unrelenting struggle against the caste system and its oppressive determining presence in women’s lives- be they upper/lower castes or dalits.
By Gauri Jagdale,
MSW, II year
Manusmriti, a religious text that gained especial importance during the British times as defining rules for Hindus, has come to be identified as an outstanding exemplar of the severe inequities sanctioned by the supposed sacred texts of this religion. In particular, Manusmriti has been severely condemned by anti-caste and women’s movements in the country for the rules and roles it lays down for social conduct for women and for dalits.
For women, these are some of the “laws” laid down:
- Women have no business with the text of Veda.
- A woman must be honored and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brother-in-laws.
- By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her house.
- In Manu’s view, women were ornaments of the house who were to be kept safe and looked after utmost care and attention.
- A woman must always be cheerful, clever in household affairs, careful in cleaning utensils, and economic in expenditure.
Duties for women include:
- She must be loyal to her husband throughout her life: fidelity demanded from wife and no such demand from husbands.
- Husband should constantly be worshipped though he may be devoid of good qualities : making subservience a virtue
- Wife should not perform yagya, and fast without the presence or permission of her husband : access to God for women can only be mediated by husbands.
- Whether the husband is dead or alive, she should not do anything which may displease her husband
- Even after the death of her husband, she should not think of other man
- After the death of her husband she should be patient of hardship and chaste.
- If she cannot have a son or daughter by her husband she should not go to another man to have an offspring:
- A widow should never re-marry.
On reading this, one might laugh at these antiquated notions of how women must be. But upon slightly deeper introspection, one would be surprised to know how many such ideas continue to live on. This is because these beliefs are deeply embedded in our societies and gain sacred legitimacy because they are intricately tied to our religious beliefs also. In many places, even the thought of breaking away from these restrictions calls for brutal consequences, for instance honour killings witnessed in many rural and urban parts of the country.
It is within this context that one must see how daring and confrontational the act of burning the Manusmriti was. Not only did it mean freedom for dalits symbolically, but it was about calling on women from every caste and class of this society to free themselves from the oppressive structure of the caste system. In burning the Manusmriti, Dr. Ambedkar was clearly making the link between the caste system and how it drew upon the violent submission of women to sustain and perpetuate itself. And that the caste system’s pervasive and insidiuous structure affected all women- with different consequences- but affected adversely nonetheless.
On this day, we stand together in solidarity with Dr. Ambedkar and the women-nameless and faceless-who answered his call and provided the momentum for the vibrant dalit women’s movement, whose legacy we have inherited and benefitted from… and hope to carry on.
A handful of water
Cupped in my palm
Slipping away fast as
I raise it to parched lips
I want to drink deep
Quench the pain
Soothe the hurt
That rages within
They might come back soon
Shall I stay? Shall I flee?
Right the wrong?
Or wrong again?
To stake my claim on these little drops
As much mine, as they are theirs
Tainted waters, an impure touch?
A whirlwind, anger, clouds my thoughts
A drink of water was all I needed
My dignity is now what I seek…
Broken arms hold on to dear life
Drawing out, drawing on, the little drops – toward me.
- Divya S Sarathy
I was raped
Today, I was raped,
Behind the dark alley, under the dark sky,
They say I am mutilated,
Yes, my womb has been shred apart…
I came, oblivious of the Gods conspiracy,
You observed, aware of my naïve fecundity,
Your vindictive strength cut me into two,
I struggled on, ululating a morose tune.
You pinned me down ,
I grasped and struggled,
My clothes, an inconvenience for you.
The truth was out,
I was being plundered
by the wall, my body, the Gods and you.
My fingers stood numb,
Against the invasive metal you penetrated into me,
I heard a yell pass unnoticed,
As you muffled my mouth and slid inside me,
Yes, you were inside me,
All, all, all night long..
But my eyes
they were away, heaven bound,
Looking out at the shiny star.
You licked my mouth,
I smelled your sweat, your hunger,
I saw your eyes,
suddenly vacant, looking at me,
Was I your shiny star?
Impetuously, a laugh escaped,
You looked away, your gaze ashamed,
For the sins you bore in your defiled virility,
Had violated my flesh incessantly.
I watched you suffering,
In the surging hurt of your lost glory,
You were holding on to me,
To be your Christ, your messiah..
You looked for salvation, from me.
To forgive you, redeem you.
But inside me, you were flaccid, weak
And it was my anger that bore against you.
You came out slowly, pitifully,
Hiding your militant sword in your scabbard,
But the murder lay in the blood that oozed
from me, testimony to the conspiracy.
You carried away your clothes in a huddle,
Eager to hide away in the dark,
Yes, you were looking for another sacrificial lamb,
Never seeing the goddess that lay stabbed..
Development Studies, I year
In a campus where we lead separate, disconnected lives, it is indeed a remarkable moment when we do come together to raise a voice, however small.
On the eve of Human Rights Day and in consonance with the International Fortnight Protesting Violence against women (November 25-December 10), a group of students came together to initiate a programme that hopefully marks the beginning of a more vibrant discussion about issues of women on campus and in the outside world.
In an unintended tribute to how women record and pass on their history down generations, songs, so much a part of oral history, were the most powerful part of the programme, ranging as they did from violence within the family to outside to how it impinges on the woman’s perceptions of her self.
The presentations – about students’ initiatives on speaking out on violence against women – were also reflective about various small efforts that people are involved in to bringing into focus issues of women, and different categories of women.
Thus we have the annual Ambedkar Memorial lecture, which for the first time, is focussing on women and Ambedkar’s philosophical standpoint on the question of women. Speaking out against the oppressive violence that Dalit women face, particularly that of sexual violence, a group of students have taken active initiative about a rape case in Beed district to highlight the systemic violence that dalit women are subjected to, because they are women and women of an oppressed caste.
While some students are keenly following the rape case of a former TISS student, which has had repercussions on our lives on campus as well, another presentation by the Committee Against Sexual Harassment sought to demystify this Supreme Court appointed committee and dispel the notion that it is “anti-men”.
For students who want to engage with the world and its structures, we need to break silences – silence especially around women, their lives and the violence that is part of many women’s everyday. And here this evening, the event sought to break this silence on campus.
And as part of this effort to keep talking, TissTalks calls for entries to the blog on the theme gender. Please do write in to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A rape incident in Beed district of Maharashtra brought some of us together to look into caste-based atrocities, particularly against dalit women, in this State. Many public meetings later, it was decided that a letter expressing our concerns and articulating our demands be sent to relevant government authorities in the State and the Centre as well as various commissions and the media.
Following is the letter, which has been passed in the GBM held on Saturday. Please do sign up for it on the posters that have been put up near both the dining halls and the new campus canteen.
We, the students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, write this letter to you to condemn caste-based atrocities against Dalits, particularly Dalit women, across the State of Maharashtra.
The immediate context to this letter is the gang rape of a 15-year old dalit girl at the village of Ranjani at Georai taluka in Beed district, Maharashtra on August 23, 2009 by some upper caste men. The trauma of the rape apart, the girl was beaten up by the police and threatened against making a complaint. The FIR was registered only at the instance of the District Magistrate of Beed but even then the crime, clearly a caste-based atrocity, has not been registered under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. About a month into the rape, the accused have also not been arrested.
Incidents of caste-based violence in Beed District are not new and newspapers over the last few months provide evidence of this rising brutality. On August 24, 2009, a dalit man from Malaspimpalgaon was poisoned to death because he refused to beat the drum during the ‘Pola’ festival. Earlier, on June 25, 2009, another dalit man from Phulepimpalgaon at Mazalgaon was murdered by upper caste people. On January 17, 2009, in Shindi village, two Dalit college girls were severely beaten and paraded in the village because they did not respond to lewd remarks by upper caste people.
Organisations working with Dalits in Beed district – Rural Development Centre and Savitribai Phule Mahila Mandal – have found that out of the 247 cases, registered for offences against SC/ST between 2001 and 2008, over 70 such atrocities have been against women.
This data points to a larger incidence of increasing caste based violence against Dalits across the State. Government data shows that the number of atrocities against SCs in the state has gone up from 689 in 2004 to 844 in 2005, 1,001 in 2006 and 1,173 in 2008. (Indian Express; August 5, 2009)
The increasing violence also shows the complicity of the police with people from upper castes in perpetuating atrocities against Dalits, particularly Dalit women. This is clearly seen in the gang-rape of the 15 year old Dalit girl from Beed.
That women bear the brunt of caste-based violence is well documented. Even in this case, the girl was raped and then beaten up by the police when she went to file her complaint, not just because she is a woman but importantly because she is a Dalit. Violence against dalit women, we assert, is to perpetuate and sustain caste superiority. Rape of women from the dalit community is a tool of violence used by upper-castes to maintain their control over marginalized communities.
Therefore, to prevent atrocities and to strengthen security of Dalits, we demand that following action be taken:
1. The case must be registered under the SC/ST (PoA) act.
2. The P.S.I. of Georai police station should be suspended immediately and action taken against him under section 4 of SC/ST (PoA) Act, 1989. The Sarpanch, Police Patil, S.P., D.M. should be held responsible in case of atrocity in their areas, under the same provision.
3. Police have been seen as complicit in caste-based atrocities. Efforts, in the form of training programmes, by the State Government are necessary to ensure that the police act as agents outside of the caste system and ensure safety of the marginalized. It must be ensured that the police do not make victims of caste-based violence more vulnerable.
4. Beed district should be declared as Atrocity Prone Area, a provision under section 17 (1) of the SC/ST (PoA) Act, 1989.
5. A comprehensive review of caste-based atrocities in all districts must be undertaken and those areas which see a high incidence of such atrocities must be declared atrocity prone areas as well.
6. The State should undertake its duty of providing economic and social rehabilitation for victims of all caste based atrocities, as given under section 21 (iii) of the SC/ST (PoA) Act, 1989.
7. A collective fine must be imposed on villages where caste atrocities have been reported, as provided for under section 16 of the Act.
8. In most caste-based atrocities, it has been seen that the police do not register cases against the SC/ST (PoA) Act. It must be made mandatory for the police to register them under this act. Action must be taken against those police officials who do not register it under the Act.
9. Investigation by a special committee on why the gang-rape case at Beed had not been registered under the Act should be undertaken since it could provide indicators to the visible trend of not registering caste-based atrocities under the Act.
10. Caste-based violence against women must be registered under provisions in the SC/ST (PoA) Act and the Indian Penal Code together. This reflects the understanding that violence against women is because they are vulnerable as women and also as members of the dalit communities.
Lastly, the State must explore initiatives to encourage collective action among Dalit women for their empowerment and to provide them a safe environment. We would like to add, that we intend to follow the proceedings of this case closely and will be awaiting an urgent response from you, to decide on further action. We hope that the above demands are considered at the earliest so that the confidence of Dalits and the general public in the State is restored.
Musings on hostel living
Community living requires us to negotiate everyday to maintain a sense of privacy. This involves respecting people’s attempts to create their zones of comfort. Here it is essential to understand that women access spaces in ways much differently from men. And the crucial point is that women also access spaces differently from other women also. Therefore, women’s perceptions of what their private spaces are, vary widely. You can contest it, but you cannot expect a universal agreement on the issue of private spaces.
In a setup such as a hostel, public and private spaces are not exclusive. As people live out most of their everyday lives here, boundaries between public and private blur and spaces can be both public and private simultaneously. You could clearly demarcate what is public and private but that would involve bringing in the authorities to control our daily lives more than it is already done now. Thus arises a need to keep the demarcations of the private and the public fluid to suit the liberal individual and avert institutional over-control.
This brings us to a new kind of problem where we encounter a new threat of ‘forced liberation’. Often, an apprehension of loss of freedom has been used to justify a wrong understanding of liberalism and democracy and to impose it on women and cultural minorities. ‘Self-proclaimed liberators of the oppressed’ begin to threaten the private spaces of these groups. Their mission is not to conceive a democratic consensus on free culture but to enforce on others, what they think is right.
It is imperative upon us to revisit our lessons on democracy and liberalism. While it is fair to hold certain values, ideas and engage with a certain ideological politics, it is always productive to give people the space to negotiate with your framework. Judging others from a self-assumed moral high ground closes all spaces for interaction and discussion.
In sum, being liberal does not necessarily mean living life in the public gaze; there are private spaces that individuals have a right to reserve for themselves. A liberal environment is one where individuals are free to pursue their lives, unhindered by others. Liberals are liberals not because they merely tolerate others’ freedom but because they respect it. They believe in resolving conflict of interests rather than bad-mouthing those who choose to disagree.