Of tradition and modernity

The Delhi gang-rape has triggered off a very important debate on the on the position of women in Indian society. Women’s organizations, activists and students have played a crucial role in furthering the idea of a woman as a citizen with rights and claims, irreducible to an object for policing by men. At the same time, two other voices have come through strongly, bringing to focus some of the problematic themes in our understanding of what really constitutes the freedom, liberty and dignity of women.

 At first glance, there were the voices of men in positions of power, betraying their alarmingly misogynistic mindsets. However, there were also well-intentioned women politicians who spoke of tradition as the basis of respect for women. Their invocations of women as mothers, goddesses and objects of worship obviously did not take into account the oppression of women built into traditional units such as family and religion.

The second voice belonged to prominent female actors of Bollywood, who rejected the charge of commodifying their bodies and perpetuating the objectification of women. They argued that showing off their bodies for mass consumption or presenting themselves as ‘objects of desire’ must be seen as facets of the modern Indian woman. These have to do, they claimed, with celebration of their beauty and their freedom, rather than a submission to the norms of a male-dominated film industry.

 Are these two positions on women very different from one another? Do these interpretations of tradition and modernity in India hold the key for emancipating women in our male-dominated society? In what ways do these conceptions measure up towards eliminating the inherently unequal relations of power between men and women?  In other words, it is important to understand if either of the two voices qualifies as a genuinely feministic call for changing the rules governing the family, the work-place as well as the public sphere.

 Viewed within the narrative of a transformative politics, the positioning of women as mothers merely restores them to their traditional nurturing role in society. Advertently, or inadvertently, there is reaffirmation of the idea that a woman’s primary duty is to her family, and that women who work or participate in political life do so at the cost of abandoning their duties at home. Paradoxically, this idea has remained staunchly in place, even as political parties called for attitudinal changes, in the wake of the gang-rape in Delhi.

 More disturbing is the deification of women as goddesses or objects of worship. We often forget that such a practice also legitimises the portrayal of women as demons, witches and various evil portents for the men in their families. In either case, women are treated as mute objects around which the meaning of tradition is debated and decided by men. Secondly, by portraying a woman as a supreme being occupying a realm outside of society and the state, the current discourse stifles her ability to demand her rights and claims as an equal citizen in a democratic state. By taking away from a woman her free will, such a discourse becomes no more than yet another justification for suppressing her voice and policing her actions.

 As far as the voice of Bollywood is concerned, it is indeed ironic that female actors claiming to celebrate their freedom and beauty routinely defend their portrayals of ‘item girls’ in terms of fulfilling viewer demand. Surely it cannot be too difficult to understand that freedom and choice of a woman cannot be dictated by what producers or viewers demand? It is a telling portrayal of how professional, affluent and ‘empowered’ women can be co-opted into a system where the market not only puts a price on her body, but also leads her to genuinely believe that it is by virtue of her own choice that she celebrates her bodily beauty.

 Interestingly, Bollywood actors also defended the popularity of ‘item girls’ by drawing parallels with Salman Khan’s shirtlessness and similar acts by male actors. This stance stems from a sense of laissez-faire individualism that appears to promote individual freedom and personal responsibility – in this case, for drawing attention to their bodies. However, it bears no cognizance of the role of patriarchy in dictating the content of popular culture, whereby a shirtless hero is by no means the same as a scantily clad item girl. Without such a conception, it is impossible to distinguish the parading of women’s bodies from Salman Khan’s show of masculinity, which is in fact a glorification of virility and strength – values that are celebrated in our deeply patriarchal culture.

 Typically, the premise of laissez-faire individualism leads professional women to reject gender-based identification, which is seen as diminishing the value of their achievements in the work-place. As a result, they do not participate in the process of affirming women as a group. In the absence of such affirmation, women can easily be led to believe that their sufferings are merely personal or specific to their circumstances. In fact it is such personalisation of violence and oppression that plays into the logic of blaming the victim and holding her responsible for her plight.

 The seemingly disparate voices of tradition and modernity definitely seem less so when viewed within the framework of patriarchy. While the idea of woman as a mother reinforces patriarchal conceptions of gender roles within the family, the discourse on worshipping the feminine constructs woman as an object, which becomes the justification for reinventing and redefining oppressive traditional practices. On the other hand, the voice of the Hindi film industry dons the garb of modernism, but its premise of laissez-faire individualism does not recognize oppression as a systematic, structured and institutionalised process in our patriarchal society.

 Finally, it must be said that tradition and modernity are not always contrarian values, as the self-proclaimed custodians of Indian culture would have us believe. While tradition has typically been the grounds to sustain the subordinate position of women, economic modernization has ridden on the backs of women’s bodies and their labour. It is in our ability to recognize and combat these covert forms of violence in both tradition and modernity that rests the freedom and dignity of women.

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