The Sexist Idiom- Interrogating a dyad

Also by a friend….

“I have no doubt, “said Clara, “that you would much rather fight for a woman than let her fight for herself.?
“I would! When she fights for herself she seems like a dog before a looking glass, gone into a mad fury with its own shadow.?
-Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence

Prism- a group which is essentially pro-choice shocked me out of my wits today. Sure, they are pro- homosexuality and anti-war– yet the virtue of the school of the ‘equality- feminism’ theory seems to have caught hold of them. It is sad. Women are NOT the same as men! And this statement is not without historic precedent. Even in language and literature women have been discriminated against. “We want to be treated not as creatures of special powers, as angels or delicate children but as EQUAL sinners…”- said an equality feminist. Why equal? Are women not different? Different in mind, body and spirit. Do we not have independent contributions to make to the world? Is ‘women-kind’ just another drop in the vast ocean of ‘man-kind’? Is ‘His’- story not different from her’s? To all those who believe nay: I have but one line: “Women who yearn to be equal to men lack ambition”.

The importance of language and the ability to use it (effectively) is not lost on anybody. Language after all is that system of signs whereby mankind conjures sense, selves and sensibilities. It is thus crucial to interrogate the nuances behind the unconscious and conscious usage of words. After all it is through signification (conventionalized via education or legacy) that we relate to our surroundings. Our ability to understand is crystallized by the use of terminology that makes it familiar. However, this construction of the familiar and through it of knowledge (a prerequisite of articulation) is far from democratic.

The issue of exploration here is not cultural differences but a commonality that runs through the entire process of communication and that is the phallo-centric nature of language. The all pervading masculine paradigms of communication have in fact become a given for most. What is remarkable is the outreach and dissemination of patriarchal discourses (on gender roles, stereotypes etc) via the simple act of expression. Women in general are thus robbed off the potency of ‘articulation’. Articulation implying expression of experiences accompanied by an empathy, an understanding from the intended listener. It is thus the absence of words, the limitations of language in completely conveying their situation and the inability of the auditors (the men and even other women) to comprehend them which needs to be addressed.

Any conflict in society emanates from a contestation of representations; be they of communities, societies or nations. And history shows that representations of women have been far from fair. At the same time they also do not possess the means (i.e. the vocabulary) to question and contest such representations. The irony of the entire situation is that though women are the mainstay of patriarchy by way of being the ‘objects’ of the discourse –typified in vessels of honour, objects of exchange etc they are in fact marginalized when it comes to the process of construction of identities. It is in the absence of a wholly ‘female vocabulary’ that the woman suffers the most. As Thomas Hardy points out in Gemini, “It is hard for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.?

The outcomes of such a situation are evident –either in an identity crisis which manifests itself in the discourse of the ‘hysteric’ or the acqueisence to the dominant and oppressive discourse of patriarchy. Juliet Mitchell elaborates on the discourse by defining ‘hysteria’ as “..the woman’s simultaneous acceptance and refusal of the organization of sexuality under patriarchal capitalism.? This then gives rise to “the woman’s masculine language?. Oxymoronic in signification, it sums up the inherrent contradictions of a woman attempting to speak aloud to break male hegemony, and yet at the same time negotiating and compromising with it. A phenomenon most evident in 17th and 18th century literature that saw women writers assuming male pseudonyms to create literature that gave credence to and space for narration of female experiences –even if by subtle inversions or minimal mutations of prevalent stock characters.

Thus, the woman in order to be heard, if not understood, must adopt the hysteric’s voice. A most potent figure of this process being that of the ‘mad woman’- the ‘literal’ hysteric: Bertha Mason, in Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, whose madness is induced by confinement imposed by patriarchy (and even race) and by whose presence Bronte underscores the opressiveness of patriarchy. The stock character of the gothic now becomes a means to condemn the dominant social modes. Yet, the articulation of indignation is incomplete, Bertha Mason is denied a voice and Jane Eyre rapidly conforms to the stereotype of the nurturing, forgiving woman-the true heroine. Language in such cases continues to be limiting.

The stereotyping (a matrix of symbols generated by language)of women, if not as the wanton and lascivious whore or adulterous temptress, finds another extreme in the virtuous virgin. The entire experience and autonomy of sexuality (in intercourse, the choice of partner and even expresssion of the experience) is denied to them. Also as ‘vessels of honour’ their agency is very conveniently confined to domesticity and in the public arena of dialogue and critique they are denied a voice. All this when most political and social mobilizations resort to iconization of ‘their’ women. In their multiple avatars of mother, daughter, wife etc they become bearers and symbols of an entire social group. Besides the philosophic angst of trying to live up to or renconcile these stereotypes with personal realities the practice of dehumnizing women to mere symbols posits a far greater danger. During any conflict they become easy and vulnerable prey as a means of attack for one group on the other. History (yet again a male narrative!) is full of stories of mass
rapes in ethnic and regional conflicts. Violating the honour of the women of a particular community is violating the honour of that community.

‘According to the patriarchal consensus the community’s women should be defended as borders? (Ivekovie and Mostov). In the discourse of nationalism the woman is the ‘motherland’. And as the mother figure she is desexualized, thus making her suitable for worship by her sons. In Indian history, the personification of the country as ‘Bharatmata’ caught the public imagination in the early 20th century when Bankim Chandra Chattopadhaya used this in his poular ‘Anandamath’. The sentiment continues to be reinforced to the present day by movies, popular tele serials etc. The individuals’ concerns are thus lost in all rhetoric. Violations in the name of nationalism, culture etc all go unaddressed or umpunished. Greater causes subsume ‘minor’ issues regarding women. Patriarchal discourses once again deprive women’s narratives (of trauma, violation or dispossession) of the space they deserve, particularly in conflict situations.

Clara’s question to Paul in Lawrence’s ‘Son’s and Lovers’ “that you would much rather fight for a woman than let her fight for herself?? is another classic example of the internalization of patriarchy. Clara in this case is a mouth piece of the system. She calmly accepts Paul’s portrait of a woman as one who exercises autonomy in taking up her case independently as “..a dog before a looking glass, gone into a mad fury with its own shadow.? She also cannot even fathom the idea of a woman trying to engage or contest with her circumstances on her own. Paul’s description also shows the dismissal of any pro-activity on the part of women as a mark of madness. Thus, not only are women denied the words to engage in a discussion, the ones who attempt to do so are in turn straight jacketed by constructs of ‘types’. The only option before the woman is either to make do with her insufficient vocabulary and utter ‘imperfect’ words (as they generate little or no understanding or reprisal) or to retreat into silences. The trauma is thus hers to bear alone and come to terms with.

In a society which conditions its women to suffer in silence (by denying them a potent vocabulary), the onus of any crime is on the woman. The psychological barrier in a understanding a woman’s trauma is extremely deep rooted. After all the tools of comprehension are missing! The callousness of the situation is seen in the judiciary system itself. Following the dictum of ‘innocent till proven guilty’, it is entirely up to the women to “prove penile penetration? (the legal terminology confirming rape). With such ignorance and indifference exhibited it is not surprising that women feel much ‘safer’ within the walls of silence. Feminist authors have repeatedly tried to break these silences and give voice to that unknown woman. Ambai in her short story “Squirrel? refuses to passively let the neglected books by women writers burn. Her alter ego, the squirrel unable to physically save the books commits ‘vaddikiruttal’ (suicide while facing the sun). Thus, we see that while the protest is registered, it ends in silence. The question then is whether this silence can be broken? If at all then is it possible only by subverting patriarchal narratives? Thus, is imperfection twice removed the only way out?

While third wave feminism attempts to coin more words of female subjectivity to counter this, the importance of examining the role of symbolic communication, verbal and non verbal must not be undermined. Dialogue and inquiry centering on the questions of how gender is constructed via language and how the processes of difference, dichotomy and hierarchy are involved in such gender constructions must be encouraged. Speaking like a man must not be the only alternative of exploration, construction and preservation of her identity for a woman.