Do As I Say, Not As I Do: The Struggle For Female Essay, Research Paper
A continual theme throughout the second section of class this quarter has been the idea of gender and sexuality in ancient and modern India and the continued attempt of the Indian woman to gain the right to express herself as she chooses. Whether fighting for abortion rights, the ability to express oneself sexually through choice or partner, or even the ability to enjoy sexual intimacy with one’s husband, the women of these texts symbolize the continual fight for freedom of female expression. Seeming to understand that we are sexual beings in nature, the men of India have discovered that by controlling female sexuality, they can, in effect control females. While articles on female feticide and lesbian culture in India focus on male attempts to devalue women’s beliefs and ideas, the commentary on the Hijras and the film Fire serve to display the contradictions that exist between male and female sexual practices.The idea of a double standard for sexuality is displayed in the film Fire, perhaps more blatantly than any other source we have covered this quarter. The movie focuses on the developing relationship of two neglected sisters-in-law in present day India. The two women find themselves facing celibacy due to their husbands who neglect them both emotionally and sexually, one due to his continual pursuit of ‘purity’, the other due to his affair with a local aspiring actress. The sexual freedoms of men and women in the film are shown to be vastly unbalanced. The men in the film’s family group: two brothers and their gardener/caretaker display sexual freedom that despite its harm to others goes virtually unpunished. None of these three men participate in a ‘normal’ heterosexual relationship as defined by the social norms of the time. One is exposing himself to the elderly mother, one is having an affair, and the third is practicing self-induced celibacy. Though each of these actions eventually leads to some consequence, none of the results could be considered extremely harsh, especially in comparison to what happens to the women of the movie. When it is finally discovered that the family’s caretaker has been watching adult movies and masturbating in front of the husbands’ elderly mother he is berated not dismissed from his job. Although Radah’s husband is neither cheating on her nor publicly displaying himself, she too must deal with the sexual repression of being forced to lay by his side each night while he ‘tests himself’ to see if he can resist his sexual urges. No mention is ever made to him that by doing this he too is sexually dominating his wife, not by forcing but by denying intimacy. While it is known in the family that Sita’s husband is having an affair both before and during his marriage to her, he is left free to act as he wishes so long as he stays married to Sita. Though the family frowns upon each of these behaviors it does so quietly; the men are given the freedom to act as they wish so long as they do not make a public spectacle of themselves. Conversely, the three women living within this family demonstrate the lack of freedom to sexually express themselves until their rebellion at the end of the film. Even Biji, the elderly mother of the womens’ husbands is left to the will of those around her. Unable to speak she must withstand her caregiver’s exhibitionism in silence until her daughter-in-law accidentally walks in on him. It is only when the women turn to each other that they are given the opportunity to express themselves sexually. The women of this culture are given no ability to control their own sexuality; every aspect of their sexual being is founded in their husbands. Even after the women begin their affair, they are still controlled by their husbands: knowing that they must hide it in order to avoid the extreme consequences. In examining the two books covered in this section; Sakhiani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India and Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India we are able to see the many ways in which female homosexuality is seen as deviant behavior while the transgender and homosexual practices of the Hijras are almost celebrated. Although both cultures claim to have religious basis and almost mythical histories, it is only the lifestyle of the Hijras who have been assimilated into modern Indian culture. In Sakhiyani, the author sites the masculization of several female deities as a symbol of the continual effort by the males of Indian society to devalue the religious icons that support her claims of a strong history of lesbian culture in ancient India. By denying the feminist and lesbian movements the ability to site such icons, the dominant male culture is able to keep what they feel is deviant behaviors under wraps. In exploring the modern day shift of focus from females as a sexual being to females as a reproductive being, the author illustrates society’s attempt to devalue the female sexual experience. “Fertility and libidinal desire are reduced to raw, unprocessed, animal-like wild phenomena urgently requiring male domination.” (Sakhiyani, p. 37) This clearly paints a picture of a gender that will spin wildly out of control if not kept in line by a dominant male force. The Sakhiyani article illustrates the determination of the patriarchal society to keep control over all aspects of sexuality in India. If a woman can have a sexual existence without male companionship, men lose the ability to dictate the terms of female sexuality. By forcing women to tie their sexuality to men and denying them the ability to exist as a sexual being on their own or with other women, the men are able to secure their positions in society.In light of India’s supposed opposition to modern sexual deviance, it is interesting to examine the Indian people’s general treatment of the Hijras’ culture and lifestyle. Although these men choose to live outside the social norm they are in many ways revered and celebrated. The Hijras have employed many of the same techniques as the feminist and lesbian movements to support the cause, but have done so with far greater success. They site mythical references and stories as building support for their lifestyle throughout the history of India. Nothing has been done to devalue these stories and icons, leaving the Hijras free to base their culture on what they feel is historical justification. On the other hand, an observer can witness the conscious attempt to obliterate feminine deities and myths that would support a female power movement or sexual liberation. There seems to have been a calculated decision to allow the Hijras the freedom to live as they choose based on the idea that despite their deviant behavior, they are still men and therefore entitled to make their own lifestyle choices.
It could be argued that the Hijras are tolerated because of the cultural role they play in society. It is the role of the Hijras to entertain at weddings and the celebration of the birth of a son, bringing blessings upon the family through their supposed ‘magical’ powers. The Hijras have been known to capitalize on this position by threatening to curse a child or marriage if their demands for money are not met. It seems unlikely that society would grant such power to a group strictly because of their performing abilities and the novelty of their acts. It is more likely that the male dominated society understands that this group’s lifestyle choice presents little threat to their power structure. Despite the Hijras choice to live their lives as female, they are still in reality men choosing to participate in sexual activities on their own accord. The idea of women being denied sexual rights or existence apart from male influence comes to a head in the examination of abortion practices in the article “The impossibility of ‘justice’: Female foeticide and feminist discourse on abortion” by Nivedita Menon. In this article, the author explains that despite the supposed right of the Indian woman to ‘choose’ in matters of whether or not to bring a child to term, the existence of the social pressure to limit reproduction and the stressed importance on baby boys counteracts the right to choose by virtually forcing women to abort female fetuses. The irony of India is that the combination of giving women the right to an abortion and the social stress of producing male children has led to a near epidemic of female feticide. The choice given to women has effectively succeeded in reducing their value as humans and perpetuated the idea that the production of male children is a more valuable contribution to society than that of female children. The feminist movement in India met with little if any resistance in their quest to legalize abortion, seen as a basic right necessary to the promotion of feminism. On the contrary, the Indian government has provided free clinics across the nation for such purposes; rural villages without running water find themselves equipped with the facilities necessary for such procedures. By also providing these villages with the technology to determine fetal sex, the government has capitalized on the understanding of the need for sons in rural settings. In support of the idea that the government may have had ulterior motives in providing the women with choice in reproductive matters, Menon sites that ” the selective abortion of female foetuses seems to have built into the population control policies of the Sixth and Seventh Plans.” (Menon p. 377) Because the act of abortion has been taken advantage of by the government as a way to control the female population, feminists in India have been faced with the question of whether or not to oppose abortion as “population control policies that coerce women by control of their fertility.” (Menon p. 386) Despite, or even perhaps because of the crusade for reproductive rights in India, women find themselves again being sexually controlled by the male focused society. The sources covered in this section provide vast examples of the domination of women’s sexual rights in India. By denying sexual freedom to Indian women, the male-based society is able to keep an effective control on their desires and actions. The males of India seem to lend support to the ideas of some ultra-feminists in that a woman’s power rests within her sexuality. If men can discover how to keep a reign on a woman’s sexual practices, then they can effectively keep a reign on women by denying them the ability to lead full productive lives without the help of men. Each source supports the idea that men’s control over female sexuality lends to their ability to dominate them. In the film Fire we see Radha forced to symbolically pass through the purity test of the fire when a confrontation with her husband over her relationship with Sita accidentally lights the house on fire. In Sakhiani, we are shown the numerous ways in which male society has attempted to discredit the strong female presence in Hindu mythology. Serena Nanda’s commentary on the lives of the Hijras serves to illustrate the freedom given to males to choose their own sexual practices. Finally, the idea of male domination of women is brought to head Nivedita Medon’s article on female feticide in modern India. Each situation symbolizes how far women have to go in their fight for personal freedom in Indian society. It is only upon either the acceptance of female choice by the dominant male heiarchy or the feminine ability to overcome male oppression that will bring to light a new era of woman’s rights. The female power struggle in India is far from over.