Virginity rituals, menstrual segregation, taboos on women’s entry in places of worship are all patriarchal cultural customs.
Gendered ‘othering’ of women as deliberately constructed social paradigm and rooted in principles of power, is a stark social, economic and political reality of our times.
Am I the “other”? Who made me “the other”? I pose these questions not only as a woman but also as a practising anthropologist. My answer to the first questions is a definitive “NO”, deliberately spelt with capital letters. My answer to the second is “yes, I have experienced external, cultural, political process of “othering’”. It is possibly a prehistoric but certainly a historical cultural process.
A recent article by Anil Ananthaswamy and Kate Douglas in the New Scientist attributes “othering” of women to the practice of patriarchy that learned writers believe started about 12,000 years ago as a consequence of agricultural practices.
But gendered “othering” of women, as a deliberately constructed social paradigm, rooted in principles of power, is a stark social, economic and political reality of our times. Women must wear proper clothes to avoid the male gaze, they must not go out at night to avoid male perpetrators, and they must not accept jobs that require night shifts to avoid rapes.
Political pundits telling us “men are men”, sexuality is a positive male attribute to be displayed but for women exhibiting her biological assets is a disgrace. But these very men never tell us why a child as young as two to six months old or an innocent girl of six years is a sexual commodity for their lust and pervert instincts for murder. Is this a value that that process of socialising in a patriarchal system breeds or is it a male biological attribute? There is no scientific evidence to reason that testosterone the male hormone or Y chromosome is linked with aggressor genes. It is decidedly a social and cultural syndrome.
The answer for some may be liminal (as was cited by the authors of this article in case of chimpanzees), but is certainly rooted in social norms and cultural practices. There are institutional practices of female genital mutilation, the practice of Chinamwali in Zambia in which young girls (sometimes as young as 12 years), are socially obligated to go and live in bushes for three months to learn dances to please men in bed and to become “real women”. Virginity rituals, mandated menstrual segregation, taboos on women’s entry in temples and other places of religious worship are all patriarchal cultural customs.
Women as collective do not seem to object to the practice of “only women being perceived as witches” or eulogising the banned practice of Sati. There are laws and UN declarations to ban these patriarchal, anti-woman practices, but without much success.
“Othering” also includes denial of right to formal education. Even where it is grudgingly given, parity in quality education is rather rare. Laws were put in place but enactment and fixing of responsibility continue to be lax. Women are often denied placement opportunities despite being most eligible. Reasoning is often skewed ranging from probability of long maternity leave, and reluctance to go for outstation field assignments. Evidenced research shows that women are far more committed to work than men.
The road to challenging patriarchy and the process of “othering” is most arduous. Interventions to address some of these concerns have unintended consequences. Speculation is rife that some murders in the name of “honour” (dishonour) killing were reactions to the Supreme Court judgement to give women equal rights in ancestral property. Once daughters are eliminated in the name of family honour, there would be no witnesses and the land would remain with the family.
After government’s recent notification on enhanced maternity leave and flexibility to take it at any time, several potential employers are reluctant to hire highly qualified and professional women.
My worry is extension of the practice of “othering” in political processes and political institutions. Power is formalised in these roles that require decision-making not only for self but also for the community and society in general. The Constitution of India granted universal franchise, ensuring equal participation by women in the democratic processes.
The USA failed to elect a woman president even after more than 200 years of independence. We elected a woman president and prime minister long back. But has this ensured substantive representation to women in Indian politics? The obvious answer is “No”. While 33 per cent reservation for women in rural and urban local bodies became a reality under the 74th and 75th amendment of the Constitution, stories of sarpanch patis running the day-to-day affairs of these organisations are rampant.
Another myth is that matrilineal societies with progressive indicators for education and cultural empowerment provide enabling spaces for women in politics. But women’s participation in politics from the North-east tells a very different story. Irom Sharmila’s legendry struggle against removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is well-documented. But the story of her dismal rejection in active politics because of rooted misogynistic values needs to be told. In 2017, Nagaland experienced political turmoil and violence because of women’s demand for their legitimate representation in urban bodies.
Patriarchy is only one form of “othering” and gendered hegemony over women. Women’s bodies have historically been used as sites for negotiating power.
Debates over the genesis of patriarchy and its removal through legal sanctions are a weak argument. “Othering” of women as an external process would persist unless women have equal access to all forms of power resources. Women have to reflect and establish their identity beyond parables of social approval.
(The author recently retired as Professor of Social Anthropology, Panjab University Chandigarh)