The real or rhetorical possession and control of women’s bodies is central to politics worldwide, says Nitasha Kaul.
From the ancients to the moderns, in almost every culture globally, women are seen primarily in terms of their ‘difference’ from the standard norm of the male body. This plays out in many ways: If a man is provider, the woman is a caregiver. If a man is the ‘just warrior’, the woman is the ‘beautiful soul’. If a man is the sky, the woman is the earth. The list goes on, but in essence it revolves around the enduring notion that if a man is the mind, the woman is the body.
Aristotle to Manu, Shakespeare to Nietzsche, more often than not, women are seen as somehow closer to ‘nature’, fickle and inexplicable. And like nature, women are admirable in their sacred power, but in need of taming and control. Be it the wise Buddhists pinning down demonesses on the map of Tibet (by building the demoness-subduing temples), or the confident Western explorers like Younghusband seeing their actions in invading Tibet in terms of ‘unveiling Lhasa’.
Like land, women have historically been seen as an object of the male gaze and a resource to be mastered. As Lévi-Strauss and other anthropologists saw kinship, societies treat women as property for men to exchange, form alliances, and bond over; this pattern of behaviour is not restricted by geography or social class—women are pawns for war or peace in imperial weddings and a conduit for benefit in the arrangement of ordinary marriages.
Like land, women have historically been seen as an object of the male gaze and a resource to be mastered.
Thus, a woman’s body is ‘marked’—which is to say, affected—not by her biology alone (much is always made of the fact that women menstruate and give birth, that their bodies are somehow ‘leaky’ and ‘lacking’ in comparison to those of men), but by the larger social processes which give certain hierarchical meanings to these biological attributes. Take the point about women giving birth. This difference is given as an explanation for many things—such as, why women are underrepresented in the public sphere or why they are underpaid when they are a part of the public sphere. Now, take the fact that men are much more likely to indulge in violence (against anyone, men and women both) in their lives; physical violence including fights, murders, rapes, random shootings, economic violence in the form of corruption, and social violence in the form of side-effects of alcoholism or drug abuse. Is this ever given as an explanation for why men must be underrepresented or underpaid in any sphere of work?
The significance of justifying a dominant gender in the public sphere is enormous. Human beings live and work in villages and cities, in communities and in isolation, in nations around the world. Regardless of the latitude and longitude we consider, the factors that affect a person’s decisions about their life are shaped to some extent by the policies decided upon by politicians, executed by bureaucrats, and assessed by judges. Yet, in every country in the world, an overwhelming majority of politicians, bureaucrats and judges are men. Leaving aside the tired old reasons trotted out for why men are the majority decision makers in the world, let us focus on one specific proposition—it is women whose real and imagined bodies are the ultimate battleground of the exercise of power of the politicians, bureaucrats and judges.
Saying men will be men and women will be women is a moot point. As Simone De Beauvoir said in The Second Sex (1949), ‘one is not born, but becomes a woman’. Similarly, the pressure on men to be ‘Men’ is no less, and the consequent suffering no less real. Gender is probably the most pertinent aspect of our identity as human beings. An individual’s life chances are determined significantly by which gender they are born into, and there are macro level regularities to the constraints a person will face due to their belonging to a certain identity group. Yet, ‘gender’ is not solely about biological sex. The theorist Judith Butler is right when she says that gender, more than anything else, is about ‘performativity’. We ‘perform’ in certain gendered ways because of the meanings that are socially coded into our nurture.
Gender, more than anything else, is about ‘performativity’. We ‘perform’ in certain gendered ways because of the meanings that are socially coded into our nurture.
At an individual level, we may be free to choose to either conform or resist the social prescriptions associated with our gender role. But, the question is that at a macro-political level, we must not forget how our dualistic way of thinking can enable substantive violence against women by reducing them as a group to their bodies alone.
Reducing women to their bodies has many consequences. Beyond the obvious point about turning women into ‘sex objects’, there is a minefield of political and public policy implications. It makes (real or desired) control over women’s bodies a battleground for politics—on the Left, Right, and in the Centre. For example, in recent times, it has allowed an entire politics to be constructed around the idea of ‘liberation’/‘protection’ of women’s bodies from their oppressors. When the Americans wanted to invade Afghanistan, they sold the argument in terms of freeing Afghan women from the clutches of the Taliban. When the Islamic or Hindu or Christian fundamentalists want to assert their principles, at the core is their argument about protecting women from the evils of Westernisation, Modernisation, or other such labels that connote immorality for them. In development discourse, during the last decades of the 20th century, the control of the state over women’s bodies became manifest in the draconian curtailment of reproductive rights for women in order to meet objectives of ‘population control’. In present day West, the issue of women’s right to have state-supported abortion is still contentious enough for prolonged budget disagreements between the Republicans and the Democrats that nearly threatened a US government ‘shutdown’ in April this year.
The entrenched idea that a woman’s body is the most significant thing to possess and control is what has led, in modern times, to women being specifically targeted and violated in communal riots and ethnic clashes. Then, there is the horror of organised rape of women as a conscious instrument of war. As seen in Rwanda and Bosnia, this is different from simply rape as an incident of war, it is a systematic use of rape in war zones as a strategy of power, control and retribution.
Even when women stand alongside the men and protest for human rights at the frontline of a revolt, they are singled out and not immune to being persecuted for the bodies that they inhabit.
The personal freedom of what a woman can and can’t do with her body becomes a social issue. We know that unaccompanied women can’t drive cars or go for a swim in Saudi Arabia, but we also know that now women can’t wear a burqa veil in France without being punished, fined, or jailed. Even when women stand alongside the men and protest for human rights at the frontline of a revolt, they are singled out and not immune to being persecuted for the bodies that they inhabit. In Egypt recently, Amnesty International reported that women protestors were forced to take ‘virginity tests’. The moral guardians/policemen of women’s dignity also find individual zealots who take it upon themselves to use violence in (what are euphemistically called) ‘honour killings’ where men commit murders because the women of their family or community have been involved in relationships that challenge the conventions of race, class or caste.
The potential for violence to a woman’s body begins right from the time that an amniocentesis reveals the foetus to be a female; as Amartya Sen pointed out, there are millions of ‘missing’ girls in India and China who were killed due to male-child preference, (and here neither the influence of Communist ideology nor economic prosperity made a difference). The statistics overwhelmingly document the sexual assaults female children routinely face, in many impoverished communities, girls are sold into prostitution. Within families, women bear the brunt of domestic violence, in the public sphere, they are at risk of molestation, vitriolage, rape, and trafficking. If widowed, they are social outcasts, and even when laws permit, they rarely inherit property.
Given this is the state of affairs, here’s a question: what about the rage that women feel? In widespread global cultural stereotypy, women are seen as the gender that overtly embodies emotions. At least since the time of the Enlightenment, in terms of the mind versus body divide, masculinity is associated with the mind, reason, rationality, and the public sphere of the government, and femininity is associated with body, passion, emotion, and the private sphere of the family. Women are believed to be passionate and emotional; they have a ‘temper’.
The potential for violence to a woman’s body begins right from the time that an amniocentesis reveals the foetus to be a female.
Au contraire, it’s women’s genuine rage, a sustained and railing kind of anger at their situation that they are often nurtured to repress. Mythology may have handed us down the figures of Kali or Medusa, and when one looks past the wrathful (but perfectly proportionate and attractive) cyber-goddess angels, one is more likely to come across human rage in the form of disaffected men (it is always men) with a gun in their hands and murderous rage on their minds, spraying bullets, sometimes selectively at women (such as during the Montreal Massacre of 1996 when a man shot and killed women engineering students to ‘fight feminism’, or the 2009 Stuttgart incident where a teenager went on a rampage killing girls).
The message, culturally ubiquitous around us in a million ways, associates ‘doing’ with men, and ‘being’ with women; what women think is less important than what they wear, or how they look, or what their morals are judged to be. It is not a surprise then that women themselves might overlook the possession and control over their bodies. Women’s expectations of their lives are often shaped by comparing themselves to other women, and not to other men. In addition, socially, as a group, women’s achievements are generally deemed less valuable than those of men. Taken together, this means that women have greater likelihood of missed opportunities due to a lower expectations horizon; they expect less of themselves than they might, and if this leads them to strive less, this finally reinforces the ‘otherness’ of their position.