Archive for January, 2010
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