Wednesday, 8 March 2017
WHY SHOULD BOYS HAVE ALL THE FUN? An International Women's Day Special
‘Why should boys have all the fun?’
Women and Contemporary Literature
Nibir K. Ghosh
I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system. - Mary Robinson
Being a woman is like being Irish. Everyone says you’re important and nice but you take second place all the same. - Iris Murdoch
Women are a huge powerhouse in today’s India. Look around you. There are women racing in all kinds of fields…finance, literature, broadcasting, art, IT, design, law, science, medicine, education – and are a huge powerhouse in today’s India. A powerhouse, true And yet this is a powerhouse with over 90% of the power switched off. These are women who don’t even know they have choices. - Imtiaz Dharker
The Bible says the Lord God created Eve out of the rib cage of Adam, giving thereby a derivative nature to her existence. There is an equally charming myth associated with the creation of woman by the Supreme Creator, "Bramha." Bramha first created man and in his generosity, wished to give man a companion. He borrowed several components from the beautiful creation of nature and made woman out of them. Hence the reference of woman as Prakriti. Bramha presented woman to his earlier creation man saying "She will serve you lifelong and if you cannot live with her, neither can you live without her."
Both myths indicate that woman is either an "after thought" of a male God or a play-mate created for man as a psychic compensation for his innate loneliness. If the primordial myth gave woman her ritually prescribed status, all literatures since time immemorial expose the desperate marginality of female existence whether these women have lived in solitude, in extended families or in nuclear families, be it in ancient Athens or the world of Manu. Though Manu, the lawgiver, accepts that "A woman's body must not be struck hard, even with a flower, because it is sacred," he is well known for stating: “A woman is never fit for independence. Her father protects (her) in childhood, her husband protects (her) in youth and her sons protect (her) in old age…Day and night woman must be kept in dependence by the males.”
It ought not to be surprising, therefore, that in the world’s most powerful democracy, when the Statue of Liberty, which portrays a woman holding the torch of freedom, was opened to the public on October 28, 1886, no woman was invited to the ceremonies on this important occasion. Even to the nineteenth century conservative in America, the idea of equal rights for women had appeared ridiculous and unwarranted as can be evidenced from the following statement:
The power of woman is in her dependence…But, when she assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer, our care and protection of her seem unnecessary; she yields the power which God has given her for protection, and her character becomes unnatural. If the vine, whose strength and beauty is to lean upon the trellis-work and half conceal its clusters, thinks to assume the independence and overshading nature of the elm, it will not only cease to bear fruit, but will fall in shame and dishonour into the dust.
These social stereotypes have been reinforced by archetypes for ages, amply supported by Freud’s classic finding ascertaining that “Anatomy is Destiny.”
Articulating Silence - Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own
Important questions like Who is the real woman? Where is the real woman? What is her real entity? Has she an identity of her own? lay submerged in the conspiracy of silence. From the perspective of the Seminar’s central theme, mention must here be made of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929), a document that veritably challenged the paradigms of such a silence. In passionately reclaiming the woman's voice muted by patriarchal society – where men have all the power and money, hold all the important positions, make all the important decisions – Virginia Woolf’s narrator in the essay explores the British Museum in London and is dismayed to find that though there are too many books written about women (almost all by men) there are hardly any books by women on men or by women on women.
Reflecting on such a great disparity, the narrator gives convincing evidence why genius has so infrequently flowered among women. In A Room of One's Own, Woolf ponders the significant question of whether or not a woman could produce art of the high quality of Shakespeare. In doing so, she examines women's historical experience as well as the distinctive struggle of the woman artist. She says “genius like Shakespeare's is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people." In her view, some kind of genius must have existed among women then, as it exists among the working class, although it never translated to paper. The narrator argues that the difficulties of writing - especially the indifference of the world to one's art - are compounded for women, who are actively disdained by the male establishment. By boldly advocating the fact that both the freedom from economic dependence and the freedom from fetters to the mind and body are conditions of the possibility of genius and its full expression, Woolf laid the foundation of the feminist movement. She asserts how Judith Shakespeare still lives within all women, and that if women are given 500 pounds a year and a room of one's own, that is money and privacy, she will be reborn. Woolf’s essay raises three inextricable questions: women and what they are like; women and the fiction they write; and women and what is written about them.
In breaking the conspiracy of silence and in giving expression to the untold stories of women, the revolutionary roles played by The Feminist Press in New York and Kali for Women in New Delhi need not be overemphasized. The Mission of the Feminist Press is to publish and promote the most potent voices of women from all eras and all regions of the globe. The Press has brought more than 500 critically acclaimed works by and about women into print, enriching the literary canon, expanding the historical record, and influencing public discourse about issues fundamental to women. The Feminist Press continues to bring vital new voices to public attention.
Started in 1984, in a Delhi garage by Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia, Kali for Women has been providing a viable publishing mouthpiece to Indian feminism. Kali's objective is to increase the body of knowledge on women in the Third World, to give voice to such knowledge as already exists and to provide a forum for women writers. Apart from publishing English translations of significant fictional writings by women from various Indian languages, Kali also seeks to redefine issues of women's lives in a positive way. Kali for Women has now split into two independent imprints. The co-founders of Kali, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon have established their independent publishing imprints - Zubaan and Women Unlimited respectively.
Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House
When Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) tells her husband Torvald Helmer before leaving him for good, “Our house has never been anything but a play-room. I have been your doll wife, just as at home I was daddy’s doll child. And the children in turn have been my dolls. I thought it was fun when you came and played with me, just as they thought it was fun when I went and played with them. That’s been our marriage,” Nora comes to the point where she takes a drastic step ahead of her time. The play created a sensation when it was first produced and many women refused to play the part of a woman who deserts her husband and children.
Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying
Erica Jong advocates both emotional and economic autonomy as imperatives in the woman’s struggle for liberation. What is significant in Erica’s stance is that she is not unaware of the ground realities and the attendant hazards of Nora’s decision in Ibsen’s play. She takes into account all the dialectics involved in theories of Western Feminism propounded by Germaine Greer, Kate Millet, Ellaine Showalter, Simone de Beavoir and the rest and yet she is highly critical of the “whole package of lies that passes for feminism.” She states that fulfillment cannot be attained through idle flights of fancy, martyrdom or suicide. Fulfillment lay in exploring the “inner space” of the self to conquer one’s own sense of vulnerability.”
In Erica Jong’s view the awakened Eve, especially in the American context, has gathered the confidence to voice her protest against the tyranny of man not by virtue of her legal battles or the attainment of political rights of equality but through her rejection of roles imposed upon her by a male-dominated society and through her discovery and acceptance of the true essence of her own selfhood. At the end of the novel, Isadora Duncan, the protagonist, is seen musing over the ambivalence of the choice she had made: Commenting on the powerful status of the institution of marriage, she states in the novel: “In 19th century novels, they get married. In 20th century novels they get divorced. Can you have an ending in which they do neither? But whatever happened, I knew I would survive it…Surviving meant being born over and over. It wasn’t easy, and it was always painful. But there wasn’t any other choice except death.”
Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying also brings to the fore the misconception that we in India normally have about the western idea of marriage and family life. One tends to believe as a result of such misconception that the woman in western society is endowed with all kinds of freedom that are denied to women folks in India, especially the right to live as one desires. Tired of playing the game of musical beds, the protagonist becomes aware of ground realities even in the most powerful democracy in the world: “ It is heresy in America to embrace any way of life, except as half of a couple. Solitude is un-American. It may be condoned in a man…But a woman is always presumed to be alone as a result of abandonment, not choice…There is no dignified way for a woman to live alone. Oh! She can get along financially perhaps (though not nearly as well as a man), but emotionally she is never left in peace. Her friends, her family, her fellow workers never let her forget that her husbandlessness, her childlessness – her selfishness, in short is a reproach to the American way of life.
While talking of the fate and predicament of women in contemporary literature, one cannot ignore the dominant presence of Doris Lessing in any discourse both as creator and protagonist. In awarding the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature to Doris Lessing, the Swedish Academy cited her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny." The award, that came a few days before her 88th birthday makes her the oldest recipient of the coveted honour. Author of dozens of books of fiction, as well as plays, nonfiction and two volumes of autobiography, she is the 11th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Lessing wrote persuasively about politics, feminism, Communism and black-white relations in Africa before moving on to explore the emotional dimensions of the human psyche in her groundbreaking 1962 novel entitled The Golden Notebook which took the world by storm. Lessing’s focus has always been her concern about the inner lives of women and she is extremely articulate in rejecting the notion that they should abandon their lives to marriage and children. Having known what it means to be intelligent and frustrated and female in an essentially male-dominated world, she states: “Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so.” Lessing critically and realistically explores the controversial questions being debated the world over – the stereotypes, marriage, motherhood, the predicament of emancipated women, sisterhood and finally arrives at the conclusion to be free one must be self contained.
Lessing motivates us all to demonstrate an optimistic approach to life and its complexities and suggests that we ought not to wallow in self-pity, regret, sentimentality or seek to evade responsibilities. Instead we are to face each problem as it comes. She emphasizes the need for positive engagement with the world and prefers a delicate balancing of social responsibility and self-interest. In spite of the cosmic misalignments, humanity has the ultimate choice for good or evil, she says. According to Lessing, “The New Jerusalem does not come down from heaven—it is constructed by humanity in whatever geometric shape they want…What is a hero without love for mankind.”
Images of woman in Indian literature is characterised by contradiction - there is a conventional image and there is a protesting voice. Post independence literature reveals the woman's quest for her identity giving rise to a number of issues. The new woman is emerging and there are a number of new themes and issues to be taken by the future. However, two overall views of woman dominating Indian literature from ages. The Sita and the Draupadi archetypes. There is silent suffering with utmost loyalty to man in the Sita type and woman as an Individual demanding social justice in the Draupadi types. Sita absorbs all inflicted misery and humiliation of the male ego whereas Draupadi challenges the male ego to the epitonic limits of human excellence. Sita accepts, accommodates and withdraws. Draupadi resents, rejects and involves herself in the process of life as a protagonist. These two feminine archetypes define the limits of feminine experience in reality, especially the Indian Reality. The gender divide in modern Indian literature moves between new iconizations of these two bold and primordial figures.
Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni
As an appropriate illustration of the two primordial figures mentioned above, Pratibha Ray’s novel foregrounds the anguish and anger of Yagnaseni who rightly questions whether man has the right to consider woman merely as his movable or immovable property. Placed on the brink of utter humiliation when brought dragging to the court by Dushshasana, Yagnaseni doesn’t plead for mercy but demands justice. Pratibha Ray’s protagonist Yagnaseni boldly affirms the stand she had taken in that critical moment, a stand no less significant in today’s India than it was in that mythological space: “When that wicked man was stripping me, helpless like chaste Sita I could have disappeared into the depths of the earth to hide my shame. If I had prayed, would not the earth have opened? But I did not do so. If I had done so my modesty would have been protected but the wicked would not have been punished. In the future this problem would remain unresolved for women…The remaining days of my life I will fight against injustice, adharma, sin. Though the world may call me an ogress because of this, the world must know that woman who creates, is auspicious, is also the destroyer of the sinful and the wicked…Let the world know that while a woman’s heart is delicate, it is not weak.”
According to Ray, Draupadi is a challenge of womanhood, the embodied form of action, knowledge, devotion and power. Such a woman who has faced torment, insult, mental and emotional dilemma like Yajnaseni Draupadi – has not yet been born on this earth. Yet, the pain and the agony of mythical Draupadi is not an anachronism in contemporary Indian society, a fact that is highlighted by Ray through the narrative she recounts in the “Afterword” to Yagnaseni- The Story of Draupadi:
All of us know something of Krishnaa’s sacrifice, dedication, strength of character. The name of the younger sister of a lady known to me is Krishnaa. Leaving her debauched drunkard of husband she is living in her father’s house. Everyone said Krishnaa should remarry. But in our society today the remarriage of one discarded by her husband is not that simple and easy. For diverting her mind, Krishnaa went away to her brother in West Germany. Sometime later, she married a young man there. She has two children now, a son and a daughter. Her conjugal life is comfortable. But the peculiar thing is that those who were at one time sympathetic towards Krishnaa, said after the second marriage, “Well, when her very name is Krishnaa, she could be happy only after taking a second husband. Arre! The Krishnaa of Mahabharat took five husbands, and still not being satisfied, was attracted to Karna and Krishna.”
After such knowledge, what forgiveness! It is interesting to note, sad though it is, how societal attitudes refuse to acknowledge the need for change in spite of epoch making advancements and technological future shocks. Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, the novel that won her the Man Booker Prize, we are brought in touch with the harsh realities that reflect the social and cultural stigma of divorce in India and the fate of the “wretched Man-less woman": “a married daughter had no position in her parents' home. As for a divorced daughter according to Baby Kochamma, she had no position anywhere at all." Let us not forget that the novel’s location is Kerala, the province which has the highest literacy rate in India.
Mahashweta Devi’s “Draupadi”
On the other extreme, and contrary to the stereotypical patterns of the female image, the hope, perhaps, sadly lies in the emergence of the exceptional woman like Dopdi in Mahashweta’s story “Draupadi” who can live on her own terms by rejecting the stereotyped image of the ‘truly virtuous woman’ who is ever willing to conform to the standards set by a male-dominated society. Unlike the legendary Draupadi in Mahabharata who in her helplessness pleads to Lord Krishna to protect her from being ignominiously disrobed in public, Mahashweta’s protagonist subverts the stereotypes of “female virtue and modesty” by boldly daring the exploiters of her modesty to touch her again: “What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?…There isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed. I will not let you put my cloth on me. What more can you do?”
The Contemporary Scene
The image of woman in literature emerges out of the existing world. In India, which has been regarded by sociologists as a traditionally male dominated society, both men and women writers have seen woman in this relationship with man, primarily as mother, wife, mistress and sex objects. Woman as an achiever is either non-existent or considered an exception. A woman's individual self has very little recognition. But we have to remember that family plays a pivotal role in the Indian scheme of life. The new woman in Indian literature does not break the family but dreams to make the family "Home Sweet Home." Be it small or big, be it in the courtyard or in the courtroom woman is the cause of all action. But they are still walking on a tight rope to achieve their human rights and social justice. Indian woman at the turn of the century are in a transitional phase via-a-vis the interface of tradition and modernity. Though women writers are tolerant and respectful towards the traditional obligations, they are still confident of their own new self and sensitive to the dogmatization of traditional values.
At the turn of the new millennium Indian literature as far as the feminist thrust is concerned, is not free from family, history and social modernism. The women are more educated, sophisticated and even rebellious but the woman herself is wary of shedding off the traditional values which forms part of her inherited consciousness. Once upon a time, not very long ago, the story of Savitri was held up as a prime example of the lengths to which a wife could go in aiding her husband. The myth relates how the good wife saves her husband from death, follows him anywhere, proves her virtue, remains under his control and gives him her power. We must however admit that the times are changing even if the pace of change is marginal. As an evidence of the changing scenario we may look at a statement by Anees Jung in her pioneering book titled Unveiling India: A Woman's Journey (1988):
Not long ago a woman who spoke about herself was considered a loose woman. To voice a pain, to divulge a secret, was considered sacrilege, a breach of family trust. Today, voices are raised without fear, and are heard outside the walls of homes that once kept a woman protected, also isolated. Some of the women who speak here have stepped out. Others who have not, are beginning to be aware, eager to find expression. But let them speak for themselves…Their looks have not changed, their manner has. Individually they have gained a name, collectively an identity. Their new power was not imposed upon them but already existed, enclosed within walls. Now that power has stirred out into the open. Their new strength stems from personalities defining their own terms, lending grace to living.
Anees Jung exemplifies another writer in search of new images of women. She explains the change that has taken place in Indian society so that now women will tell their own stories. Jung herself, who grew up completely secluded in purdah, has remained unmarried and become a successful writer. She says about herself: "My reality no longer has one face. I have stepped out of an enclosed reality into one that is larger, more diverse, and mobile…I continue to live out an experience for which I have yet to find a name.”
Reflecting at the epigraphs with which I opened this essay, it becomes imperative to realize that women empowerment is a very complex issue endowed with subtle shades of variant approaches that require the perfect poise to navigate between rocking the cradle and the system in order to restore a major share of the power that currently stands switched off. Perhaps, what is needed is that every feminist worth the name must learn to acknowledge what she has in common with others of her sex who are all similarly shackled by conventional notions of her predicament. Neither the path of open confrontation nor an uneasy truce but the confidence to move in harmonious unison as co-partner in the power game, without compromising honour and dignity as an individual, ought to be the real goal of woman’s emancipation.
It must be borne in mind that specific reforms related to the emancipation and empowerment of women must supplement the basic need for a change in attitude towards women, since women need self-trust, self-reliance, and self-respect in order to assert their individual identity and existence. The fact cannot be ignored that sex is the only instance in which representatives of the unequal groups live in more intimate association with each other than with members of their own group to a greater extent than any other underprivileged group. Femininity must, therefore, exist as the complement to masculine power, not as its subversive supplement, an excess that would undermine the boundaries of gender. As such, it would be appropriate to bear in mind the words of Betty Friedan that come at the end of her The Feminine Mystique:
Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves? Who knows what women’s intelligence will contribute when it can be nourished without denying love? Who knows of the possibilities of love when men and women share not only children, home, and garden, not only the fulfillment of their biological roles, but the responsibilities and passions of the work that creates the human future. It has barely begun, the search of women for themselves. But the time is at hand when the voices of the feminine mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete.
I am optimistic that “the search of women for themselves” will bring to the fore multiple facets of women’s experiences: the power, the passion, the pain, the hopelessness, the fury, the joy. It will be a rewarding experience to comprehend simultaneously the diversity of women and the diversity within each woman as portrayed in literature and life. It is intrinsically significant to ask how these experiences touch women writing on the whole. Do these writings address seminal questions and issues? How do women themselves view such writings? Is it marginal or central to their lives? What is the relationship between such writing and the political involvement of the writers? What are their concerns, and what is the creative energy at work? Our response to these questions will go a long way in creating the much desired democratic space in harmonious living.
Professor Nibir K. Ghosh is Chief Editor, Re-Markings (www.re-markings.com)