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FOCUS June 1997 Volume 8

Culture, Women and Human Rights

In India, culture manifests itself within the multiple contexts of caste, religion and class. Therefore, any attempt to look at culture as a homogenized entity would be erroneous to begin with. The diversity contained in what is called Indian culture indicates high degrees of interaction, assimilation and integration for all communities in the lived sense.

Even a cursory look at daily life of any section of Indian society will reveal the continuities between various kinds of cultures and the experiential basis of these continuities. Thus when I Iook at Hinduism or Islam in this paper I make a distinction between the two only at the level of scriptural differentiation. I do not believe that a pure pristine Hinduism or Islam exists in India, neither do I refer to these as monolithic categories.

Religion and culture both cannot be viewed outside of social contexts. Therefore, we find across the length and breadth of the county that cultural practices vary according to social patterns that have been historically and geographically determined to a very large extent.

Hindu culture

Colonial rule has been part of the Indian cultural context and has had many implications for the existing cultures in India. It is difficult to overlook so many years of history when dealing with culture even in a superficial sense.

The British expressed horror at the brutal and 'uncivilized' tradition of sati. Despite this, sati was legalized by the British in 1913 in so far as it had the 'consent' of the widow. This, commentator Lata Mani argues, in effect endorsed Bengali Hindu Brahmin notions of wifehood. The British, after all, did ostensibly follow the policy of abstaining from interference into all religious matters. All they did was intervene administratively.

Some commentators like Sunder Rajan point out that Indian feminists need to move on from the simplistic presumption that women are always forced into sati, just as orthodox opinion needs to reject the belief that all such acts are voluntary. Culture embraces many complexities: the individual impulse does form one part of such complexities. The question of taking a stand on sati is not being debated here. The point is that just as the British refused to grant subjection to women, women's groups should not disallow agency to women.

In my opinion this argument cannot be stretched too far. For it does allow for a relatively uncontested acceptance of the secondary identity granted to women in patriarchal society. It is possible that when women voluntarily commit sati they are acting on internalized notions of this secondary identity. However, the discussion on sati, ranging from colonial times to the present, is beset with many nuances.

What does it portend for women's human rights in India? Firstly, the act of sati is placed within a certain notion of womanhood, certain principles of identity that are purportedly culturally accepted in India. A deeper examination will reveal that these notions of womanhood and identity pertain only to a small section of Hindu society. Besides, they are being drawn from a selective reading of scriptural texts.

This process of selection belies other elements that are to be found within the same religious traditions e.g, the notion of shakti. For the moment I only wish to point out that the need to hegemonize some concepts over others arises in the context of a ground reality that threatens male authority and domination.

From the human rights point of view, sati symbolizes a reduction of women's identity to marriage and wifehood. It says in the crudest of ways that women cannot/should not live outside of marriage. Sati is therefore unequivocally, a crime. It brings into play the entire range of patriarchal controls on women's sexuality and personhood. Neither the British nor the Indian state has a problem with this in any real sense. The benevolent patriarchy that both wish to impose on women is only a shade different. Both have the same objectives ultimately. Both are therefore violative of women's human rights.

The fact that women have internalized such patriarchal notions and acted upon it does not relieve them of the burden of the injustice it perpetrates on women. Even if women choose to experience this particular 'pain' to move on to 'no-pain " it does not detract from the criminal nature of the discrimination against women that leads to the opening out of choices that violate their own rights, even if they commit it themselves. In order to view women as subjects we also need to examine the context in which women make certain choices and ask ourselves whether the choices would have been different had the context changed. It is not to deny women agency that this distinction need to be made. It is to examine the text of the agency itself that we need to go into this.

Women have and always will use tradition in a manner that enhances rather than reduces their individuality and their autonomy. We shall see how the spirit of women's resistance lived even in times when 'tradition' held sway. It is this that will strengthen the movement for greater dignity and equality for women.

Well-within the Hindu traditions of poetry and literature was the 18th century Telugu poet Muddupalani. She was a ganika (dancer, singer, poetess) in the court of Pratapsimha who ruled over the Southern kingdom of Thanjavur from 1739 to 1763. She traced her literary lineage through her grandmother and her aunt.

In 1910 Bangalore Nagaratanamma, herself a ganika, decided to edit and reprint her Radhika Santwanam. She raised an uproar. Muddupalani was called an 'adulteress', a 'prostitute' and so on by critics two centuries later for the 'crude descriptions of sex' in her poems.

This account of Muddupalani's art and Nagaratanamma's attempt to restore it to Indian literature is extremely interesting. It indicates the multiple forces at play when a woman chooses to assert her right to produce literature that allows her to go beyond the boundaries of the sexual expression drawn up by patriarchy in both nationalist as well as colonial thought. More importantly it speaks of a Hindu tradition which allows for such a thing for Muddupalani was in her own time a renowned poetess and dancer. She had an impressive reputation in the cultural context of the 18th century.

It is exciting news that the Hindu culture could create and sustain such poetic excursions (specially today when even the slightest deviation from permissible limits is bound to raise controversy. Besides, the permissible limits are shrinking at an alarming rate at the behest of self-proclaimed proponents of Hindu culture). And that women like Nagaratanamma would come to appreciate such literary expression so many years later.

Which is what I was referring to when I said that the spirit of resistance lived and passed on from generation to generation.

Within the Hindu traditional map there are many such examples of women who chose to define themselves within the cultural parameters of the community without compromising on their own quests, their own truths. Conservative opinion, moral orthodoxies of the British and the nationalist mind-set alike disapproved of such expression/assertion on the part of women.

The reason being that each of these women combatted successfully all the notions of womanly propriety that each agency sought to impose as a hegemonic ideal on women. Indeed, it remains a question as to whether modern India will tolerate such creativity or imagery any more.

The context has changed again: the gloss of modern sophistication conceals a deep conservatism, a trenchant chauvinism and a rabid fear of female sexuality or creativity. This recurs precisely because women have repeatedly pushed against the boundaries that seek to enslave them. In the monolithic Hinduism that is being created today (television being employed very systematically in this endeavor) very carefully constructed images of womanhood are being thrust upon society. There is no place for women like Muddupalani in such portrayals. Relocating traditions of women's assertion within the folds of Hindu religion as it were, allows us to build and shape alternative constructions that are as rooted in Indian culture as any other construction is.

I think it is important to realize that religion even within its discriminatory framework did open up ways in which women could move toward their emancipation. The fact is that some women did seize upon those elements within oppressive religious frameworks to embark upon a path that signified freedom. It is that action that is important whether or not they questioned fully or even partly the biases embedded in the social and religious contexts of their time is perhaps not all that relevant. For it was the individual assertion that formed the content of their struggle. In stepping out of the prescribed bounds for women, Mirabai (a famous woman poet) challenged and to a great extent defeated oppressive structures of caste and gender.

Shakti embodies the ultimate female power in Hindu cosmology. She creates and destroys, she exhibits a fierce power over all of creation. Shakti is, some argue, at the core of all Hindu frameworks: in short, the feminine capacity to create, destroy, nurture is the determining principle of Hindu cosmology, influencing social ethos considerably.

Shakti, the mother goddess, is called upon to protect cities, human beings and all life on earth. She is feared, she is appeased. Shakti also, at the other end, symbolizes uncontrollable female power, unbridled female sexuality: it is the fear of this power that calls for social and moral structures to impose controls on women. For, without such restraint women would rule human existence. More significantly, they would possess the capacity to destroy human existence.

Thus we have a justification of oppression of women, the extremities of this oppression does tempt one to detect a deep sense of fear of femaleness. The roots of this imagery, of this perceived essence of womanhood, does lie in the Hindu conception of Shakti.

Folktales drawing upon oral tradition and with many women-centered tales draw upon the Shakti principle for the narrative. A deeper examination of these folk tales will reveal, no doubt, more about symbolism around Shakti. It would be worth it to undertake such a study to understand the ways in which popular Hindu consciousness is shaped around fear, awe and admiration of Shakti.

Islamic culture

The Muslim community in India is not a homogenous body of people emanating uniform responses or basing itself on one set of norms that remain similar throughout the length and breadth of the country. There are several interlinked and disparate layers within the community with differing interests.

At a basic level, the Muslim community is not exempt from class/caste divisions that characterize the social sphere in India. In that there are similarities within the community that correspond largely to other communities.

There is no pan-Indian Muslim identity. Ascriptive status gives rise to similarities that form the surface of many discontinuities. A deeper rootedness is to be found in the immediate environment that each Muslim woman and Indian partake of and contribute to.

In India, the bulk of the Muslim population belong to economically and socially vulnerable strata. Education and employment among Muslim women is low in a general sense, though there are regional variations. Caste Hindu society has influenced Muslim cultures in India in many ways.

Contrary to populist construction of the Muslim woman, purdah is not widely practiced all over the country. It is only in some regions that it continues to be part of the dress code for women. In many areas women rarely wear the purdah. There are many such observations that can be made about the Muslim woman in India. In general, it is thought that Muslim women are a pitiable lot crushed by the unbridled patriarchy of Islam.

We can look at the laws that govern Indian Muslim women with a critical eye for its limitations as well as the possibilities that lie within it.

For example, marriage is referred to as a contractual relationship between adult men and women. Consent of the woman is mandatory: no marriage can take place without such consent from the woman. Mehr or dower is also mandatory.

Let us not confuse the injunctions of the Qur'an with Indian reality. Sure enough, Muslim women do suffer from the consequences of belonging to a class, caste-based society which allows them minimum control over their lives. In that sense, a positive potentiality in the law does not always translate into a positive reality for Muslim women.

Nevertheless, what can be stressed in the context of reclaiming human rights for women is that there is a continuity in the most basic aspects of the cultures that Muslim communities root themselves in. Consent, for example, grants women personhood and autonomy. Muslim women have made use of this in many ways. The matter of consent is also a very complex matter: it can be manipulated easily. Despite that, for what it visualizes women, the clause of consent is very significant.

Similarly, we can see the ways in which mehr has become a rallying point for Muslim women in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. Many women's groups that see wisdom in asserting their rights within the religious framework are demanding an increase of the mehr amount. The contractual nature of the marriage allows divorced/widowed women to be free of the social stigma that has been institutionalized in the case of Hindu women.

Triple talaq or unilateral divorce is the most widely known form of divorce that is granted by the law, quite apart from the fact that in most Islamic countries triple talaq has been banned. It is not the only form of divorce that is possible. The Qur'an does not look upon unhappy marriages as a satisfactory state of things: it therefore allows for both parties to opt for a divorce. Women have been unequivocally granted the right to initiate a divorce.

On the face of it, the Qur'an can be interpreted as a reflection of patriarchal attitudes. But, on the other hand, it has to be admitted that in comparison to the Judeo-Christian legacies that it is rooted in, it does offer women many possibilities. It is a step forward in that sense because it represents a different point in history. It is therefore a document that has dealt with some of the rigidities of the past. Many feminist Muslim writers have commented on the social and political visibilities of the women in that period. These women, some of whom are the prophets' wives and colleagues, are often the sole models for women in India and elsewhere.

If this is beginning to sound like a very simplistic rendering of what the Qur'an stands for I hasten to add that all of this is rooted in many complexities. The Qur'an lends itself to many interpretations. But that very fact gives Islam a flexibility that can be profitably used for the purpose of securing human rights for women.

When working within religious and cultural frameworks it is clear that women would have to contend with some or the other form of patriarchal control and discrimination. That precisely is the challenge: the very reclaiming of women's rights from religion and culture (the two are not to be coalesced into a singularity even as one influences the other). If that is acceptable then it is also clear that Islam offers many more possibilities and is much more flexible than many other institutionalized religions.


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