The identity of woman

. . . I have been standing all my life in the   

direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep      so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me       And has
taken      I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images    for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.

Planetarium by Adrienne Rich

I have been thinking about the idea of what a woman is – the concept of woman – in the past few weeks. It has led me to revisit a few of the questions that were raised in our work on Mahila Samakhya and the women we met during the course of the study. Perhaps, one of the most influential and dynamic people was a woman who helmed Mahila Samakhya in the initial years. When she spoke to us about what drew her to the programme, she told us that she loved the fact that the programme concentrated on the needs and aspirations of women. She felt that women have special gifts to offer to the world. Because of the imbalance in power, they are unable to fully contribute to the world, and when they are given the space and time, they can start a revolution.

This centrality of being a woman was the foundational framework of Mahila Samakhya. It was the basis for collectivisation of the groups known as samoohs or sanghas. Women were able to come together as a collective based on their shared oppression as women. During this process of collectivization, caste was often central to the discussion – but it was often to reaffirm nari-jati – the idea that the identity of a woman is paramount and the differences between women regardless of class, culture, caste has to be eliminated if revolutionary action has to take place. In essence, women must unite as women and through this connection, the strength to change the world will be forged. Of course, the singular identity of a woman has been heavily critiqued on many grounds, and I want to cover some of this in my engagement with the identity of woman. I will be engaging with primarily three interlinked concepts in this two-part blog. In this part, I’ll examine the social construction of woman and the degree to which power is implicated in the relationship between women, and in the next part, I will try to engage more deeply with the question of difference, and its centrality to the identity of women.

The woman as an essential subject has historically been and in some contexts, is still the clarion call for many feminists[1] who use it to mount their emancipatory efforts. This use of the essential woman has been used historically in both the Indian and North American suffragist movements in a very similar manner. Advocates against giving women their rights would often base their arguments on women’s nature and temperament, their sensitivities, their smaller brains, and their hysteria.  Women who supported the suffragist movement used these very biological traits to ask for the right to vote. They advocated for their rights precisely on the basis of their sensitivity and their natural moral authority (over that of men).

Of course, over the various cycles of feminist thought, the idea of ‘woman’ started to be expanded beyond physiology and was seen as a socially constructed identity that emerges through an interaction with social structures, social roles, and the gendered discourse around social lives. In other words, feminists argued that the social discourse of any culture or social world defines the roles, behaviour, and attitudes ascribed to women in such a manner that (more often than not) subordinates women’s position in relation to men.

Feminists have also argued that this restructuring of power relationships by social discourse is not only related to gender. Because identity is invoked only in relation to the social context that it is performing against, our experience of the social world as women is not restricted to the identity of ‘woman’ alone. The matrix of oppression and domination, therefore, naturally moves beyond the aspect of gender, but focuses on all the spaces that determine social hierarchies such as class, caste, religion, and sexuality, just to name a few.

Relationships of power, then, had to be centrally addressed if we are trying to create solidarities based on the identity of woman. In fact, the ‘waves’ of feminist thought have articulated just this struggle. Movements led by black women, third world women and transwomen have argued vehemently against the sameness of experience as a woman and have rejected a philosophy of solidarity based on the idea of a singular woman. They contest that this often erases and makes invisible the very real power relationships between women. The creation of this singular woman – even the idea of a woman – excludes the diversity of women’s experiences.

Two of the most common methods of exclusion that feminists have historically dealt with are related to the concepts of articulation and representation. The powerful (especially within a movement) can create a dominant discourse of women’s experiences and articulate women’s rights in a manner that do not represent majority of women’s concerns, or the women whom they seek to represent. The context in which women’s experiences are articulated and to whom they are articulated play a significant role in women’s own representations to themselves. In fact, feminists have long argued that gender goes beyond the social construction of identity; instead, the construct of gender itself is created in a symbiotic relationship to a social audience who then construct and reconstruct their own gendered response and behavior, and this performance is reified into social narrative, social role and social structure.

All of this really means that our engagement with the idea or identity of woman has increasingly and systematically being conceptualized away from the body of the woman to the discursive idea of a woman. To that end, then, we cannot engage with a unified sense of ‘being’ a woman when class, caste, religious, body, and sexual contradictions exist within the gendered plane of existence, and instead, must engage with a fluidity of identity that is constantly being produced and reproduced through context and discourse.

If this is our starting point of engaging with the identity or idea of woman, then naturally, we struggled with reconciling this fluidity of identity to the concepts of solidarity that are invoked repeatedly in the narratives of women in our study. More specifically, if we assume fluidity of identity of woman that is produced through social discourse, then on what basis are these bonds of solidarity being forged? How then are we to theorise around the intersectionality of identities, the power differences between women, and the strong bonds that they have formed over a period of time?

While it is tempting to view these bonds formed as false consciousness, strategic alliances, or in the worst case, just plain ignorance, we tried instead to engage with the larger dialogue that women were having about their own history of being in a collective. Through the examination of these narratives, we were able to mark the intense power struggles between women (within the collective) that co-existed with their deep bonds of solidarity. We were witness to the multiple mental machinations that women had to do in order to demarcate their stories as a neatly constructed narrative of empowerment, instead of a jagged conversation that engaged with the slippages, the inconsistences, the hesitancies, and the discomfort of working together and being together as only women.

One of the easiest ways to document these struggles was to examine their relationship with their own caste identity. Despite the endorsement of the concept of nari-jati that promoted the idea of caste-erasure between women, the boundaries of caste that many women could cross were much more easily done in some areas than others. For example, many of the women told us that they were practitioners of chua-chut – the practice of untouchability – until they became a collective and saw other women as reflections of themselves. So, they would eat and share together (in rejection of the practice of untouchability) and this was one of the biggest social barriers that they felt that they had crossed, sometimes, in open defiance of their families. However, women also told us that these transgressions never went beyond the space of food to more stable practices of caste difference such as marriage. So, yes – women ate with women from other castes, but the social and institutional practices of endogamy went untouched. Some of the women, especially who were managing the programme, questioned whether a different kind of politics could, therefore, be constructed if women were reproducing the same social practices as the men. To us, this felt like an unfair question, primarily because of the understanding that we had of women in general: women do not function in the world only as women. Mahila Samakhya acknowledges this to a large extent. In fact, it celebrates the different trajectories that the programme has taken in different states, and has highlighted the uniqueness of the programme in hyper-localising the problems of women, so that women themselves are able to represent and prioritise their problems. At the same time, the theoretical underpinnings of these differences are based on the wanting to reaffirm gender identity leaving aside their caste, class, religious or sexual identity. This move is understandable, given notions of solidarity are built around this basic concept, but appears to be unsustainable and frankly, undesirable, for a simple reason: the differences within the groups are often greater than the differences between the groups.

So, when we start to constantly reaffirm the singular idea of a woman as a rallying cry for solidarity, we are simultaneously smoothening the surface of our differences, ignoring the deep fissures underneath. When we do this, we ignore the very real struggle and fight that women from different subject positions have to wage in order to even engage with notions of solidarity. If we are able to bear witness to the manner in which women are able to come together as a collective of complicated and conflicted mass of identities, we can move beyond the dominant narrative of ‘empowerment of women’. We can start to ask the more pertinent and perhaps, more difficult questions: which women, under what circumstances, under what conditions, when, where, how? And more importantly, we will have to contend with the different answers that these questions will bring – we will have to contend with the question of difference.

But that is a question for the next blog post.

[1] I use the phrase ‘feminists’ here to indicate the diverse body of thought broadly categorized under the framework of feminism, with the express acknowledgement that not all feminists will hold the same theoretical stances.

Niveditha Menon
Senior Research Advisor, CBPS

[Disclaimer: Views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CBPS]

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