Reproduction: Violence on Women
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
Entry filed under: discussion.