(Her stories) Dictums of etiquette

July 02, 2015 09:37 pm | Updated 09:37 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

The use of advice manuals and articles for teaching women on how to conduct themselves in society has been a phenomenon that emerged across the world as early as the nineteenth century. These manuals contributed towards the discourse on domesticity, defining the ways in which women were to fashion themselves into embodiments of all ‘virtues’ within the house.

This period in Europe saw the publication of many advice manuals and articles that were targeted primarily at the female readers. For a woman to be labelled a lady, it was necessary that she “ha(d) at least one reference manual regarding etiquette protocol” ( Victorian Courtship ).

These manuals were directly trying to teach the ideals to be held by a perfect woman and how they should conduct themselves within the domestic space. Beginning with day-to-day activities like managing the household and bathing, the manuals developed set patterns on how women should respond emotionally.

The English educated Indians were the custodians of women’s education in India. The purpose of imparting this education was to domesticate women and mould them into ideal wives and mothers.

“What relationship should exist between a husband and a wife, how a mother should raise her children, even how kitchen spices should be arranged on a storeroom wall – all had become issues for debate and contestation” (Walsh (1997)643). After teaching women how to read and write, the next step was to provide sufficient reading materials for them.

Following the footsteps of the Victorians, advice manuals became the most powerful texts for engaging the thoughts of women in India. Advice manuals began to emerge in almost all major languages in India during the second half of the nineteenth century. In Hindi as well as in Urdu, around 10 domestic manuals were published during the period from 1868 to 1895 (Walsh (2004) 22). Most of these manuals were in the form of pieces of advice offered by the husband to the wife. The patriarchal notions about sexuality made husbands the sole authority over the wives and it was to their advice that the women had to pay attention to, ignoring the comments and criticisms of the rest of the family.

In Malayalam, such advice pieces mostly appeared in magazines that started coming out in the early twentieth century with the declared mission to empower women. Magazines like the Mahila and Lakshmibai carried columns that advised women as to how to conduct themselves in the domestic sphere.

Curiously enough, they provided accounts of the ideal Victorian household in England and offered comparisons between the home out ‘there’ and the one here and urged the women to adopt the best in both cultures rather than going for blind imitation or denial of one or the other – “It may not be right to think that the English households are ideal or that the English ways have to be adopted as such and without change by the Indians who are very different from them in their ways of life, culture, status, education and the like. However, there are quite a few things that we can learn from them.” (‘English Home’, Lakshmibai )

In fact, the women these magazines addressed were going through a transitional phase in their roles as wives who had to essay the role of intellectual companions to their young husbands who were fighting the colonial authorities and the native orthodoxy at once and these advice pieces were meant to guide them through this cultural ordeal.

It is in this context that we find the notion of stridharma disseminated through these journals. This kind of a cultural reinvention, the native intellectuals saw as extremely essential for countering the colonists who projected the native culture as innately patriarchal and anti-modern.

The notion of dharma in the Hindu ideology was invoked in such a way as to assign separate spheres of duties for men and women that sat well with the Victorian ideal of the modern family. Amassing wealth and thereby providing resources pivotal to the material well being of the family were the men’s job whereas women were asked to be perfect managers, well trained in the household duties and equipped to control and direct the servants. ‘Imaging Women’ is the ideology behind the presence of women’s magazines.

They trace the changing images of women, subtly suggesting the limits to these changes to uphold the ‘ideal’ image essential to maintain a woman’s status in society, presumably taking its cue from the attempt that began in the late colonial era to define and contain the ideal modern woman.

'These magazines to a great extent shape the public opinion regarding women’s place in society today. Their target audience is the middle class society where they are involved in the shaping of the middle class sensibility, ethos and way of life. They create a value system which does not leave any scope for changing the status quo.

(A fortnightly column on the many avatars of women in Malayalam literature. G. S. Jayasree is head of the Institute of English, and editor of Samyukta )

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