Reproduction: Violence on Women

January 28, 2010 at 4:02 pm 2 comments

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.

Contraception

‘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.

Sexualities

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.

References:

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

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Entry filed under: discussion.

The Ambedkar Memorial lecture

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. nielsh  |  January 30, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    sorry i could not able to understand few of the concept.. may be coz of my lacking of knowledge, and the domain on which your whole arguments is based on.
    also i could not able to understand what exactly is your stand or you may say your position in this whole debate of superiority and inferiority in terms of women sexuality is concerned and the conclusion per se of this article.
    but i do agree with the facts u stated in the article.

    Reply
  • 2. Cheri  |  February 5, 2010 at 11:05 am

    In his novel “On Chesil Beach,” Ian McEwan describes a newly
    married man’s probing thumb under his wife’s dress — “just
    touching her knickers” — as “a siege engine beyond the city
    walls.” The imagery is apt, for much of normative sexual
    behaviour is stylised violence with its vocabulary borrowed, as
    Roland Barthes observes in “A Lover’s Discourse”, from the tropes
    of war, pursuit and capture.

    The problem arises when one views the oppression of women and
    sexual minorities as an end in itself, rather than a means for
    other ends, and fails to explore questions like: what perpetuates
    gender asymmetry, what are the linkages between patriarchy and
    other systems that perpetuate inequality?

    More problematic than this is the lack of a position in
    “Reproduction: Violence on Women,” exemplified by the statement
    “Although a woman’s choice is ‘constructed’, it needs to be
    respected.”

    What are we to make of this very narrow reading of choice and
    the apparent inversion of the idea of critical reading? If choice
    is constructed, as it indeed is, it is constructed by the
    dominant hegemony, which in this case is patriarchy. Women thus
    become accomplices in the transmission of patriarchy. Are we to
    understand that a ‘choice’ informed by a pernicious system is to
    be respected, because, well, it is a choice?

    The error here is in mistaking between freedom as choice and
    freedom as justice. The first stance understands freedom in the
    liberal sense — the freedom to chose between Coke and Pepsi. The
    second goes beyond this illusion of choice. Unless one questions
    the basis of those apparently free choices, one cannot begin to
    approach a theory of liberation. Everything, including
    patriarchy, can be justified if one blindly follows the logic of
    choice.

    Undoubtedly, there is there is an imbalance of power and
    responsibility over the control of reproduction. The power
    largely lies with the man and the responsibility almost entirely
    with the woman. But a broad polemic like reproduction itself is
    violence is puzzling. The biological process and the social
    process are two different things. Physically emerging from the
    womb has nothing to do with being a social person, if I may
    overstate to make a statement. Birth is natural to a species, it
    is the social construction of reproduction that is violent in the
    sense it limits justice. Rhetorically, if the physical act is
    violent, the remedy is in creating baby banks.

    Four issues are raised in this note: the historical
    degradation of women through the scientific construction of
    gender, the normalisation of the male body, the unequal burden
    placed on women in child-conception and rearing, and the erasure
    of alternate sexualities.

    The first two are linked, as are three and four. If the male
    body is the ideal, the lack of its qualities are a sign of
    infirmity. Similarly, if conception and rearing are in the domain
    of the (biologically reproductive) family, the presence of gay or
    lesbian or transgendered couples is something that has to be
    eliminated.

    We can further seek a connection between these two
    observations. That would however require us to probe the reasons
    for the idealisation of the male body and for the bifurcation of
    production and reproduction on gender lines.

    As Engles notes in “The Origins of the Family, Private
    Property, and the State,” the genesis of the inferior status of
    women is in the establishment of private property. The shift to
    patrilineal transmission of wealth made, the “world historical
    defeat of the female sex,” as he termed it, led the privileging
    of production over reproduction.

    Further, the breakup of social parenthood and the emergence
    of capitalism has made child-rearing the responsibility of the
    family. For the creation of the reserve army of labour, the
    family’s responsibility is to reproduce and keep alive. To supply
    capital’s specialised workforce, its duty is more than that —
    reproduction, rearing and skilling.

    Hence we see a divergence in the birth rates and the adoption
    of contraceptives between different economic strata of society.
    The costs of skilling being high, birth rates are low amongst the
    haves. The lack of social security from the state ensures a
    larger family to the have nots — after all, six children who
    need to be schooled and who begin working early on add to the
    meagre family income.

    I use ‘family’, but it is clear that the burden is on the
    mother. As reproduction gains a higher economic value, it becomes
    more and more of a stand-alone duty and more of a specialised
    task devolved to women, splitting production and reproduction on
    gender lines. The need to transmit private property accumulated
    by the male to heirs who are truly his requires the control of
    women’s sexuality. Reproduction and sexuality thus needs to be
    given moral connotations, their limits defined and neat divisions
    into acceptable and taboo sexual practices must be made. The
    mythology and hagiography of motherhood and its idealisation
    extend from here.

    Apart from conceptual problems, I wonder why there is no
    discussion of Indian theories of gender and of women’s
    inferiority. Certainly they are more relevant to us than those of
    the West. Even there, there is no discussion of anything beyond
    Galen — is it that concepts of gender were frozen into shape
    eighteen hundred years ago?

    Further, much of the essay relies on a particular conception
    of a woman — a straight, married woman. It touches issues of
    alternate sexualities, but there is no elaboration. I would have
    liked to see something on the power dynamics of sexuality within
    gay and lesbian relationships. There are tops and bottoms, kothis
    and panthis, paederasts and catamites within these relations
    which mimic heterosexual structures. One needs to broaden the
    concept of gender to investigate these, on the lines of what the
    judges of the Delhi High Court ruled in the 377 case:”

    Of course, these hardly detract from the importance of the
    issues raised. Contraception is a double-edged sword in that it
    offers a level of freedom to women even as it places more
    responsibilities on them. The most recent addition is the
    5-day-after pill. If the 1-day-after pill has given men an excuse
    to avoid condoms — a benign option from the point of view of
    health — one can imagine the effects of this technological
    breakthrough. It is a undisputable point that the imbalance must
    be corrected and women must have a greater control over their
    bodies and the process of reproduction.

    As a minor aside: in a recent paper, Jesus
    Fernendez-Villaverde, Jeremy Greenwood and Nezih Guner argue that
    rising sexual promiscuity is a consequence of more efficient
    contraception and the resultant reduction of the risk of
    out-of-wedlock children. It has also led to a loosening of the
    social, legal and theological systems that restrict sexual
    expression that existed to limit the financial costs on the state
    and the church ensuing from the maintenance of illegitimate
    children.

    Issues of the specificity of the female body and its absence
    in public discourse too are very relevant, without this awareness
    it is but inevitable we will end up with gender-restrictive
    spaces.

    But this is not a struggle to win hearts and minds, this is
    not a game show where one has to send in text messages with
    yes/no/don’t know. The battle is to transform the structure that
    causes its victims to be its greatest supporters and which
    co-opts these victims into furthering oppression.

    Reply

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