A Mediterranean Vs. Indian Look At Cultural

Femini Essay, Research Paper

In her paper, Contesting Cultures, Uma Narayan discusses the influence of national cultural essentialism on attitudes toward Indian feminists. This paper will attempt to illustrate that there are striking similarities that exist in the Italian American culture with which I am familiar. I would like to preface this analysis by saying that in no way would I assume to equate the egregious subjugation that Indian women were (are) forced to endure with the oppression inflicted upon the women of the Italian American culture. Instead of comparing them on equal footing I should like to point out, conceptually, the similarities of the oppressions, how they manifest themselves, and to take a look at why these oppressive actions are being perpetrated and by whom. Before beginning the analysis I would like define what is meant by Essentialism. Essentialism is most commonly understood as a belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the ‘whatness’ of a given entity. More germane to the subject at hand, essentialism is the belief that there is a core to a woman. That women, on the whole, have identifying characteristics which are unchanging, stable, determinable and universal. Cultural Essentialism – is tied to the notion that there is a certain universal essence that women of a certain culture have and or should exhibit. These qualities are definite (finite) unchanging and stable. Narayan uses a biographical account of her experience as an Indian woman feminist to illustrate the oppressions of women in her nativeland. She also illustrates the way in which cultural stereotypes are being used to criticize Third World feminists. These feminists have been denounced as traders to their traditions, culture and their spiritual identity. Many feminist Indian women are faced with the traditionally oppressive obstacles put forth by men as well as women from within their own culture. Indian women were traditionally taught to “know their place” and to keep silent and that “place” was three steps underneath and or behind the men. Women were never encouraged to express their opinions especially if their ideas were divergent from that of the dominating male orthodoxy. It was a given that Indian men would be resistant to the attempts of feminists to gain a ’say-so’ regarding their treatment in society. But it was jarring to learn how many women from within the Indian culture would voice their dissent towards nonconformist feminist ideologies. These Indian women who would never fathom expressing their unhappiness towards the suffocating oppressions they were subjected to by men, were quite vocal in their dissension over feminist insurrections. Indian traditionalists would make the claim that if an Indian woman was silent and bowed to male superiority that they were deemed good wives, daughters, and mothers. Contrarily, if Indian women were to espouse behavior that was argumentative and critical of the treatment imposed upon her she was cast as an inferior or deficient woman/Indian woman that had aligned herself with “westernization”. That she had betrayed her culture and aligned herself with the ‘conquerors’, the culture that caused their colonization and jeopardized the traditional Indian way of life.Narayan cites examples of this oppressive behavior by pointing the microscope at her own personal experiences. Narayan says that she remembers her mother saying “What sort of a girl are you to talk back like that to your father?” (Page 398). The same woman that was subjected to silencing and various forms of “domestic tyrannies” by her mother in law was now perpetuating and reinforcing the ideal that ” good daughters hold their tongue” (page 398). Narayan claims that the reasoning behind her mother’s actions were borne out of the idea that if her daughter did not conform to the traditional behavior expected of the female gender then this would negatively reflect upon her child rearing abilities (that enforced oppression). Narayan states that some of her earliest memories were of witnessing her mother crying due to all the unhappiness that she harbored by keeping silent.This gives credence to Narayan’s claim that these displays of insurrection by Indian feminists were not due to alignment with foreign (western) beliefs that they were “home grown”. That these feelings of subjection and repression were a legacy handed down through generations of Indian women. It is just that these feminists were given the opportunity to educate themselves and to objectively analyze the oppressive circumstances that they and all Indian women were made to endure. Narayan says, “The shape that your silence took is in part what has incited me to speech.” The innocence and the fear that prevented Narayan’s mother from speaking out against oppression had inspired Narayan to try and act as an instrument of change.

In my experience as an Italian American woman, who gravitates toward feminist tenets, I have experienced the same kinds of oppression. I was always taught to “keep silent”, and to “hold my tongue”. If a woman from a traditional Italian American culture was to attempt to express an opinion that contradicted her father’s or to dress in attire that was deemed suggestive or to choose higher education over marriage and children she was cast as a trader to her culture. In the case of Indian women it was “westernization” that was the culprit for these acts of insurrection. In the case of Italian American women, exhibiting feminist tendencies, the delinquent behavior displayed, was in fact the fault of converting to Americanized traditions. My family is from northern Italy but my immediate family and I now reside on US soil. My parents are very traditional. My upbringing was geared towards the adhering to traditional Italian customs. My “rebellious” behavior was not well received, to say the least. It was unacceptable that I would disagree with any of my father’s mandates. The fact that I chose education over marriage and that I chose to move out of my home before I was married was deemed a tremendous breech of tradition. I used to believe that my mutinous behavior was attributed to being a “bad seed”. Now I am aware that a lot of what I chose to believe in and fight over had to do with the unhappiness that I witnessed in my mother. I unconsciously thought that it was my destiny to be unhappy due to the inescapable oppression wrought by the men in my culture. My mother was never able to enter the work force or to further her education. Her “place” was in the home tending to the domestic needs and whims of my father. Her mother in law, my grandmother, subjected my mother to oppressive behavior as well. My grandmother would criticize her in many ways both publicly and privately. She may have been criticized for wearing a dress that was too short or for allowing me to go to a neighbor’s house overnight. My grandmother and my father would both blame her leniency/poor parenting abilities on Americanization. I would also see the tears well up in my mother’s eyes due to the silence and verbal abuse that was imposed upon her. My mother was and still is a very religious woman. If she were to decide to not attend mass but instead to attend a political rally she would be cast as a bad Italian Christian woman with her priorities gone awry. These arcane and oppressive beliefs have permeated through every level of our culture. This oppression exhibits itself in every strata of the community. Whether you are a middle class Italian American woman or you are a woman from the lower ranking economic class the constraints and the criticisms still apply. The preconditioning that my grandmother and her mother before her were all a form of brainwashing that men imposed upon them.One might ask why these examples of oppressive behavior began and why they continue to be perpetrated by men, and I would offer, as does Narayan, that it is analogous to a Marxist analysis. Under the guise of preserving “traditional culture” men have long been successful at masquerading their true agenda which is to allay their insecurities and to maintain control over women. The men from each culture, respectively, believed women to be their property. Feminist women posed a threat to the empowered. If these women (feminists) were in any way going to gain a voice and undermine their dominance they must be stopped and what better way to stop them than to recruit members of their own gender to be a party to the oppression. Feminist women were made to feel ashamed and guilty for having beliefs contrary to the traditional school of thought. By threatening their (feminists) membership to the club of the “good Indian/Italian women” men thought that they could successfully contain the emancipation of these so-called “dissidents”. If these oppressors only knew that they were wasting a tremendously powerful and valuable resource by quelling the visions of women who just want to be treated fairly and justly, both societies would benefit greatly. Feminist women from both cultures, from my experience and understanding, are not trying to revolutionize and or overthrow their forefather’s cultural legacy but in fact they are just striving to raise the consciousness of both men and the women – so that both genders may, one day, live in harmony. The dissenters should never attempt to give a finite definition to the essence of a woman culturally or otherwise. Because we are not made up of a and not a set of pre-existent human essences, that position and constitute us, we are all a complex system of cultural, social, psychical, and historical differences.


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