There is a set of constant questions that I keep getting asked by most people around me – Can I cook? Do I speak English? Can I drape a saree? Do I observe certain religious rituals every morning? Do I love my country? Did I ever go out with a white man? Of these, the most regular questions are whether I can cook and whether I can even barely speak my own language. It can be stated that these questions essentially pertain to my role as an ‘ideal Indian woman’.
Over 200 years of colonisation and Eurocentric education has left us hanging almost in the middle of nowhere. The hypocrisy that we live on, day in and day out, is that we want to be Westernised aka ‘modern’ and at the same time maintain the ubiquitous patriarchal structure of the society, in which women must not budge from their ascribed position of being a servant to patriarchy.
patriarchy wants women to be modern, yet follow the norms that are specified for them.
Hence, this ‘bad’ or ‘immoral’ woman tag is given to those who dare to be otherwise. Another vital point of hypocrisy is that Western and first world attributes are considered by the larger Indian society as ‘modern’, whereas their cultural practices – especially followed by the women – are deemed as immoral and ‘unbecoming of Indians’.
The State as a patriarchal institution also tries to capitalise on popular notions regarding women’s roles in the society. The good is often associated with women who adhere to the norms set by the society, and are known as ‘traditional’ whereas the ‘bad’ is associated with women who defy the norms and attempt to rise against the popular familial structure based on patriarchy. In the present Indian society, patriarchy wants women to be modern, yet follow the norms that are specified for them, with respect to their attires, education, marital practices, societal contribution, and sexuality.
Historical events that gave way to the present situation
Historically speaking, this stringent categorisation of women has part of its roots since British rule. During the days of the Raj, there were several ways in which the British tried to ‘civilise’ Indian people. One of the ways was to incorporate the Victorian norm of covering the body – in order to maintain ‘chastity.’ Another idea that became popular during that time was a binary opposition between the males and females, in order to organise their working potential in society.
This further aggravated the restrictions on female sexuality, whereby women could be kept under pressure from all corners of society. However, the overarching factor behind the propagation all these practices was patriarchy. Based on patriarchal notions, such divisions were created between men and women, to suit the colonisers’ agenda of ‘divide and rule.’
However, the British were not the only ones to define the good and bad woman in their own terms. Way before they invaded India, the caste system – since the Vedic times – played an important role in determining the clothing patterns that women had to follow, hence gaining complete control of the female body.
This was too based on the notion of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’. While dominant caste women were required to cover their bodies, it was quite the opposite for non-dominant caste women. This practice was based on the fact that the dominant castes had to protect their ‘honour’ by covering their women’s bodies – which was considered a signifier of dignity.
One of the ways of British rule was to incorporate the Victorian norm of covering the body – in order to maintain ‘chastity.’
In the 19th century, there was a peculiar rule that had cropped up, in which non-dominant caste women had to pay taxes for covering their breasts with clothes or jewellery. This was termed as ‘breast tax’. In Kerala, this was the rule imposed by one of the powerful kings of that time, who sent his people to collect taxes from non-dominant caste families where women covered their breasts, especially in public spaces. A woman named Nangeli cut off her breasts in protest of the tax levied on them.
Along came the British colonisers, who propagated the Victorian idea of covering the female body. This practice was picked up very quickly by the dominant castes, mainly Brahmins. The idea of wearing a blouse along with the saree developed during that period. This attire was called the ‘Brahmika Saree’, as stated by Partha Chatterjee is many of his popular works on colonialism and nation-building.
During British rule, a large portion of the population gave in to ‘Western’ norms and regulations of lifestyles in order to gain education and reformulate themselves as ‘progressive’ in the world of gradual industrialisation. But in the twentieth century, the rise of the new middle class in India gave birth to nationalism and a different kind of binary, between the Orient and the Occident.
Nationalist movements took over the subcontinent by storm when people shunned the mechanisms of the colonisers. From then, a new philosophy started being constructed in the lines of “Traditional” and “Western”. Since then, the notion of the female body and the role of women in nation-building has always been under scrutiny.
Who is a good woman and who is a bad woman?
Women are categorised into the binaries of positive influence and negative influence in society. Practices related to women’s attires are thus always drawn into unnecessary controversies. Hence, the popular belief that exists is that women should cover their bodies completely to avoid ‘public gaze’, which is viewed in a derogatory sense.
This is related to women’s sexuality. Women who do not adhere to this norm, are considered ‘immoral’ and ‘westernised’. It is assumed that to be accepted as a part of the larger society, women must adorn ‘sarees’, which are traditional. Victimising women for their choice of garments, today, is done on the basis of that India is a traditional society that does not allow women to rise against patriarchy.
Therefore, the majority of the population still harps about gender stereotypes, which portray that women’s central role within society revolves around the domestic sphere. Women’s contribution to the nation is perpetually seen in terms of household chores within the private space.
The binary of public versus private is associated with men versus women. While men are expected to work in the public domain and provide economic aid to their families, women are expected to perform the domestic work, and provide cultural and emotional support to their families, mainly their husbands and children. A ‘traditional’ Indian must also submit to the desires of her spouse, which often culminates in sexual labour.
Women are required to dedicate themselves to the ‘inner’ sphere of life, although nowadays they are allowed to get educated. However, there are also restrictions on women’s education in comparison to men’s education. Women are not expected to be more educated than men, as it might lead to a societal imbalance within the patriarchal system. Therefore, women who rebel against this misogynist structure and educate themselves well above the glass ceiling set by society, are seen as being disrespectful towards society.
Women’s contribution to the nation is perpetually seen in terms of household chores within the private space.
Nowadays there are women who try to break free from their cages to contribute to the employment sector. Such women are not acknowledged as ‘proper’ social players, as they deviate from their stereotyped duties. The state, along with corporate sectors, perpetually tries to keep women at bay, imposing regulations on them in terms of pregnancy and by setting lower income levels. Society propagates the notion that women who venture out of the domestic cage should engage in such jobs that are ‘flexible’ so that they can devote more time to their ‘real’ job within the household.
Activities such as befriending men and consuming alcohol are considered ‘untowardly’ on the part of ‘chaste’, ‘traditional’ women. The larger society portrays the ‘westernised’ women as outgoing and vulgar, as opposed to Indian women who are supposed to hide behind walls and refrain from performing such ‘masculine’ activities that might ‘degrade’ their social position.
Sex workers do not occupy honourable places in society, as female sexuality is something that is considered serene, to be protected and preserved to maintain respectability. Victims of sexual abuse are also neglected and targeted by state machinery and due process and are viewed as ‘polluted’ and ‘unchaste’. In such cases, women’s clothing and lifestyle habits are also tactfully brought under question.
Most importantly, the issue of marital rape goes absolutely unnoticed in this sea of arguments. Marital rape is not considered a crime because women are constrained by regulations to submit to the demands of their spouses. They are considered sexual labourers within their own households, not having the ultimate right on their own bodies.
In light of all these issues and the historical developments that led us to this phase, one can only say that what ‘modern India’ seems to be, is, after all, a colonial product that is lagging behind, in the 21st century. As long as we do not give women the agency to move ahead and be independent, very little can change.
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