Praising traditions that glorify women’s selflessness and purity is to virtually justify under-nutrition of girls, unequal access to resources and denial of property rights

After sustained struggles by the women’s movement demanding recognition of women’s agency, in Prema Nandakumar’s rejoinder to Sanjay Srivastava, we have a scholar’s idiom that proudly summons the Purity, Selflessness, and Forbearance of the Indian woman.

These are not abstract ideas that make for good reading. As ossified categories, they have terrible existential bearing upon women.

In the 1880s, Rukhmabai, a child bride, refused to move in with her husband on attaining conjugal age, refused to abide by the court and went on to study medicine at the London School of Medicine. A hundred and thirty years later, a family court in Maharashtra, advised a woman — who refused to join her naval officer husband posted in the Andamans — to emulate the path of Sita and follow her husband. The same year, a court in Tamil Nadu, while hearing a paternity suit concerning a child born of an extramarital relationship, went beyond the question of law and commented on how it reflected on the woman’s “character and upbringing”. In her defence, the woman said she was married off to her cousin at the age of 16 against her will, and never had a conjugal interest and that she fell in love outside of wedlock.

Recently, one of the lawyers defending the Delhi gang rape accused reportedly told the media that nobody, ‘not even an underworld don’ would rape a “respectable” woman, reported a website. All three instances owe a veiled allegiance to the idea of ‘selflessness and purity’ of women handed down by ‘received traditions’.

The ideal-type that Ms. Nandakumar valorises continues to inform our legal and political institutions and whittle away women’s ability to social, political and legal bargaining. An ideal-type gains credence only in opposition to a binary ‘Other’; the ‘pure and selfless’ face off against the impure and loose. These categories deny us space to view a woman as an End in herself; as a being with agency and self worth.

The teleological tenor implicit in celebrating ‘motherhood’ is equally problematic. It foregrounds women as wombs that attain fulfilment in motherhood. Those unable to become mothers or those who consciously renounce motherhood are alienated. The society that hails motherhood also lives the same family arrangements based on inequitable division of labour, pushing its women into everyday drudgery, devaluing their labour.

Free will exists only with choice. Women, when groomed as subjects and affiliates of tradition, own no free will to renounce a ritual. Karva Chauth and Raksha Bandhan reaffirm unequal power relations. Both exhort men to be their ‘protector’. The countless women who were forced to climb onto the funeral pyre of their dead husbands as satis were asked to do so in the name of ‘selflessness and purity’.

A rationale for inequity

The scholar’s “Indian woman bearing the torch of cultured living through self-sacrifice, physical and mental endurance, and compassion” is waxing eloquence for retrogressive drudgery. It lends rationale for under-nutrition of girls, unequal health care, inequitable access to resources, and denial of property rights — all reserved for women born into a tradition that hails women’s capacity for forbearance.

Received traditions

One may ignore the glaring chronological oversights in her article that sets aside the early 19 century reform movement of Bengal and Maharashtra, led by Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Akshay Kumar Dutt, Gopal Hari Deshmukh, Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule and others — instrumental in setting off a continuum through their radical ideas on women’s emancipation and bolstered by later reformers including Vivekananda. But, just what school of scholarship sanctions emphatic assertions, hails uncritical acceptance of ‘received tradition’ and derides extrapolation of skewed power structures that pass off under the sanctity of tradition and culture.

In this light, the gang rape and the subsequent mass upheaval constitute an ‘event’ that has changed the popular perception of the present. It has spawned a debate on the socio-cultural nature of sexual violence. Such an event retrospectively changes our perception of our collective past. The past is meaningful only when analysed with the co-ordinates that help us perceive the present. The study of history and tradition is rather a mode of coming to terms with the present.

Limited freedom

Today, the rights of women enshrined in the constitution are viewed as a matter for tolerance. Hence, a certain amount of freedom is tolerated, beyond which it constitutes a perceived threat to tradition. This manifests itself most brutally in popular culture where examples abound of the freedom given to women before marriage only for them to ‘wilfully’ renounce it after marriage. We must perhaps view such extreme sexual violence as symptomatic of the violence prevalent in our society as such that isn’t often articulated.

It is time to engage with our past with a sense of critical enquiry, especially since the past forms such a vital part of our identity — an identity rendered problematic by recent events. In fact, critical interventions have also been part of our tradition.

Our history also lends us a Rukhmabai. Allow us to recognise the ‘waywards’ of our tradition and draw lessons in resistance.

(Email: vikram.gopal@thehindu.co.in)

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