Sunday, April 25, 2010

Femininity and the Feminine Mystique
( The Birth of Venus (Botticelli) is a classic representation of femininity. Source: Wikipedia.)

I want to dedicate this blog to Julie Bodhi Deepika from Belgium whose mails inspired me to write this essay.

While surfing through Wikipedia , I came upon an old story from the Bible, as told by Rabbi Joshua:

"God deliberated from what member He would create woman, and He reasoned with Himself thus: I must not create her from Adam's head, for she would be a proud person, and hold her head high. If I create her from the eye, then she will wish to pry into all things; if from the ear, she will wish to hear all things; if from the mouth, she will talk much; if from the heart, she will envy people; if from the hand, she will desire to take all things; if from the feet, she will be a gadabout. Therefore I will create her from the member which is hid, that is the rib, which is not even seen when man is naked."

This article, I think represents a patriarchal view of what a woman should be in their eye. A woman should not hold her head high; should not wish to pry into all things; would not wish to hear all things that man could hear; should keep her mouth shut against all the mischievous acts of a masculine world; and should talk less and leave desire to take anything, and even will not envy. It sums up that femininity, then, simply means frilly, flouncy, flippant, frivolous, and fluff-brained.

There are significant gender differences in how women and men socially construct the meaning of femininity in their lives, particularly concerning the intersection of gender, sexuality, and power. Freudian psychoanalyst theory says as women lack the visible genitals of the male, they feel they are "missing" the most thing central necessary for gaining narcissistic value and therefore, they develop a sense of gender inequality and penis envy, which in later periods, has related to power relation between gender. Freud said a little girl when observing the difference between the genital organ of her father or brother and the similarity with her mother, can notice her status of being the second sex, the less dominant sex. From this time of noticing, a girl possesses envy towards the male role model and tries to compare and identify herself with the male role model as the power holder.

According to Freud, sex is the most powerful instinct in humans. This tendency later develops into an Oedipus Complex and an Electra Complex. Being a woman, I can say that this ‘penis envy’ is not at all a significant point for femininity. It is not a proper place to discuss this topic in detail, but I referred to this Freudian psychoanalysis theory, as I have an idea that the formation of genital organs in male and female might have a link with their masculinity and femininity. The male genital is projected outward whereas that of a female remains inward. These structures may create the different characteristics among both genders. Femininity, so an introvert in nature to which some psychosnalysis termed as ‘passive’ while the extrovert masculinity for its outward projection of genital organ as ‘active’. Gerard Hendrik Hofstede, the Dutch scholar (I have discussed and compared his theory with that of Ashish Nandy in one of my earlier essays ) described these differences as ‘Quantity of Life’ and ‘Quality of Life’ repectively.

I solely believe that both masculinity and femininity are different but they are always complimentary to each other. We can’t say which one is superior and which one is inferior. In Samkhya Upanishad, the philosophers of the Vedic period named these as Prakruti and Purusha. But in their concept, Purusha (masculinity) is passive and Prakruti (femininity) is ‘active.’

‘Samkhya philosophy’ also described the creation of life with this Prakruti-Purusha concept. According to this philosophy, this Prakruti is an all pervasive but complex primal substance which is transformed into multifarious nature. The original entity is not found in its original form but remains in a state of equilibrium, and in a non-modified condition. This eternal and infinite principle is lifeless and consists of three inter-reliant and interchangeable elements called the ‘gunas,’ which consists of three parts: sattva, rajas, and tamas. These gunas are not the qualities but rather the constituent parts of Prakruti. They give complexity to Mula (original) Prakruti.

But Purusha is inactive and passive, but also alert and infinite and eternal. Under the inscrutable influence of Purusha, the equilibrium in Prakruti is disturbed and the whole universe of unlimited permutations and combinations comes into existence. The first modification of Prakruti, primordial nature, is called Mahat or Cosmic Intelligence. It further involutes into two forces, 1) Akasha, the primal matter, and 2) Prana, the primal energy. Akasha forms the material basis and Prana the energy basis of creation. From the interaction between Akasha and Prana are formed five delicate elements, crudely translated as Ether, Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. In various proportions, these are the constituents of all the material existing in the universe. As can be seen, even Mahat or Intelligence is matter consisting of three gunas and five elements.

I believe the role of femininity can be explained in no other way. Femininity is thus considered as Shakti or a source of energy in ancient Indian Philosophy. It is a regrettable and astonishing fact that while discussing ‘femininity,’ we discuss Christian ideology or psychoanalysts’ point of view but never any day has anyone discussed the idea of this Indian philosophy.

It is correct that the word femininity has not been heard very often as compared to the word ‘feminist.’ I have observed that in the West, only the Christian religious scholars discuss more about ‘femininity’ while the feminist scholars did not like to utter this word ‘femininty’ partly because of stereotypes as opposed to archetypes. They were dedicated to the proposition that the difference between men and women is a matter of mere biology and some of these feminists tried to avoid the word altogether or whenever possible, denying femininity a reality of Nature’s design and making.

On the other hand, throughout the millennia of human history up until the past two decades or so, people took for granted that the differences between men and women were so obvious as to need no comment. They accepted the way things were. Patriarchal society also used this hypothesis as an issue of the gender power battle with male hegemony and adherence to traditional male and female roles. For centuries, the concept of ‘femininity’ has been used for transforming patriarchy, making females to be subordinate in a masculine world. Femininity has always been used with a double standard by patriarchy.

While a nude art or its artist receive appreciation for the aesthetism from society, at the same time, the model has also been criticised for lacking the modesty of femininity. In the name of sexual objectification, both patriarchy and feminism have never adored femininity in any real sense. They impose many taboos and regulation on femininity in the name of keeping it safe and secure.

It is no doubt that due to feminist movement and discourse, we now have the opportunity to express ourselves; to make ourselves more visible in social perspectives; and to embrace our sexuality and sensuality. As Julie relates: “But still, women also have issues. For instance, many girls and women in Western don't totally accept themselves as they are because of the beauty standards the media and society imposes on us. The focus is so much on outward appearance rather than inner beauty.”

And she goes on: “Women also experience so much pressure. They want a career, be independent, have a household, kids, etc., etc....And manage that, ALL at the same time. Still, every woman wants to be feminine and beautiful with her dresses, jewelry, and modest attitudes. They want to be very beautiful and soft, but at the same time, strong. And that kind of women I see as my inspiration -- a humble, kind, loving woman, but at the same time, strong and intelligent.”

In earlier articles, I have discussed these matters in detail to show not only how both patriarchal society and the feminists make the rules and regulations and create the new taboos to make women more controlled in the name of ‘freedom.’

But still, women are subjugated and controlled in the name of ‘modesty’ and are also ignored in the social perspective. Their term of femininity is misunderstood and misused either by patriarchy or by the apostles of the so-called radical feminism.

Personally, I never find any difference between modern femininity and feminism if we consider feminism as a goal to make females strong enough to mark their identity against becoming invisible by those who want them to be. We should be thankful to our predecessor feminists who have made patriarchal man turn into a new masculine entity who believes in gender equality.

I believe femininity is related to ‘shakti’ and being ‘shaktified’ (I borrowed this word from my friend Wahkeena Sitka’s article ‘What Is Shakti?’). We could include power of intelligence (buddhi), compassion (daya), and divine love (bhakti) in our femininity. I also believe that this femininity has a wonderful power.

In our de-gendered times, a really feminine woman is a joy to behold and you can love and unleash your own unique yet universal femininity. We are here for gender sensitivity to proclaim the differences between men and women with a kind of pretence that we are all the same. Too many women have been de-feminized by society.

To be feminine today is to know how to pay attention to detail and people, to have people skills, and to know how to connect to and work well with others. There will be particular times and situations in which you'll want to be more in touch and in tune with your femininity. Being able to choose is a great privilege and a great skill.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Feminine India? Masculine Britain?

Taking Ashish Nandy to Task

It is my friend Malavika Velayanikal, the Principal Correspondent of DNA, Bangalore, who persuaded me to read Ashish Nandy and to share my views on his perception of “Feminine India, masculine Britain.”

Ashish Nandy, who is lesser-known to the Indian public than his brother Pritish Nandy, is an Indian political psychologist, a social theorist, and a contemporary cultural and political critic. He is a recipient of the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in 2007 and is also listed among the 100 top intellectuals by “Prospect Magazine” (UK) and “Foreign Policy” (US).

In his book The Intimate Enemy (1983), Nandy discusses how the British occupied India without any blood shedding and hardly any sustained violent response to the colonizers, as opposed to the colonization of Africa and of Latin America. Nandy discusses, in depth, the psychology that the British were masculine in character and that India was feminine in character. Using these metaphors of masculinity and femininity, the British believed in the superiority of the masculine traits over the feminine. I believe there would probably be numerous misconceptions about Nandy’s conception of masculinity/femininity.

In 1998, similar to Nandy, Geert Hofstede, an organizational sociologist who studied the interactions between national cultures and organizational cultures, wrote a book entitled Masculinity and Femininity: The Taboo Dimension of National Cultures. In it, he pointed out that masculine nations believe one should "live in order to work," and that feminine nations feel one should "work in order to live." What is the specific evidence that masculine nations feel that a "performance society is ideal" whereas feminine nations feel a "welfare society is ideal?”

Hofstede created his ideas from the results of a survey conducted by IBM, the well-known computer company. In1970, this multi-national organization sent a questionnaire to its employees across all its branches in 40 nations to find out the results of factor analysis of work goals. From the survey results, Hofstede described his idea of the masculinity/femininity dimension. (See Masculinity and Femininity: The Taboo Dimension of National Cultures, edited by Geert Hofstede, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications, 1998, 238 pages). Though the goal of IBM’s survey was to find out the work habits of a hypothetical worker from a feminine nation with those of a hypothetical worker from a masculine nation, Hofstede prepared a list of differences in the notion of masculinity and femininity.

Nandy and Hofstede never say, but it is obvious from their books, their idea of femininity is not the same as an ideology of feminism.

Unlike to these two thinkers, Sandra Ruth Lipsitz Bem or popularly known as Sandra Bem, with her book Lenses of Gender, argues how vague the idea of androcentrism (male-centeredness) is, an idea which defines males and male experience as a standard or norm and females and female experience as a deviation from that norm. Nandy and Hofstede, interestingly enough, both are male and both possess a similar attitude that men are inherently the dominant or superior sex, and that both male-female differences and male dominance are natural. These ideas shape not only perceptions of social reality but also the more material things—like unequal pay and inadequate daycare—that constitute social reality itself.

Ideologically, I believe that women are clearly different from men in some ways, and these differences should be considered but not devalued.

As Ashish Nandy has written, “The ultimate authority in the Indian mind has always been feminine.” And he very cleverly has tried to link Gandhi’s non-violent Satyagraha with a feminine approach. Let us study how sexist Nandy’s idea is when he compares everything in our tradition and politics with a gender bias outlook. It is no doubt that sexism is bias. Bias is when you have particular opinions about some group of people, and you then apply them to the individual. Unlike India in Britain, myths are also created to glorify femininity.

Is everything which related to harsh, crude, power and potentiality related to masculine characteristics and those related to soft, submissive or cooperative mutual understandings related to femininity? What about the men who are gender-liberated, anti-homophobic and sex-positive pro-feminists? Are they called feminine?

An Unconventional Family is the second book of Sandra Bem and is an autobiographical account of the Bems’ nearly 30-year marriage. It is both a personal history of the Bems’ past and a social history of a key period in feminism’s past. In1965, when psychologists Sandra Lipsitz and Daryl Bem met and married, they were determined to function as truly egalitarian partners. During the next ten years, they exuberantly shared the details of their daily lives in both public lectures and the mass media in order to provide at least one concrete example of an alternative to the traditional heterosexual family. What would Nandy say about Daryl Bem? Would Bem be feminine?

Another question that may be asked to Ashish Nandy is, what is the criteria he used to measure femininity?

Judy Giles, the first woman in the UK to gain a doctorate in Women's Studies writes in her book The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic Identities, Class, Femininity and Modernity how women experienced modernization. She argues that the working-class women of Britain did not feel the same need as their bourgeois counterparts for a private life apart from their families. They also did not value formal education, which Giles states is based on patriarchal western thought and not as empowering as the second wave feminists have argued. Further, Giles shows that homemakers were not as passive or unsatisfied as these feminists often portrayed them. Not only did they frequently ignore the messages of mass advertising, but they also participated in local, regional, and national social and political organizations. So if we agree with Gill, feminine characteristics have to be divided as per their class statistics and hence Nandy could be asked which class he would secure for India to retain its feminine character?

In Britain, and all over the world, many men are getting more involved with the feminism movement to support their cause. In 2008, Jon Waters set up the London Pro-feminist Men’s Group. Hannah Cann published her interview with Jon Waters in York Uni Women's Society magazine. Why Pro-Feminist? Jon Waters replied to the question:

“Well, we discuss it now and again... Not everyone agrees with the name. Some think that we should be called an ‘anti-sexist men’s group.’ There’s the idea that we don’t want to colonize a term for a movement set up by women for the liberation of women, and that calling ourselves male feminists or something similar would suggest we don’t understand and aren’t sensitive to the issues. However, plenty of feminists argue that feminism is for all people who want equality, and that men ought to call themselves feminists as they are fighting the same fight as female feminists. I think we’re happy calling ourselves pro-feminists and helping to define what exactly that term means by simply existing under that title!” (See:

Hence the old pattern of a patriarchal society has also been changing and now in the post-modern period, radical feminism has lost its importance and it is now time to think about the new dimension of feminism. But Nandy, away from this modernity, always places himself ideologically as having a conservative and orthodox outlook, which I will say is more radical and fundamentalist in thought. In his various other articles, Nandy has supported the ‘sati system,’ which is the custom of widow-burning on a deceased husband's pyre, a controversial topic in contemporary India. Nandy argues the ‘sati system’ is also necessary to maintain respect towards women committed to this custom. I failed to understand what he meant when he writes ‘respect’ in connection with women? Does he want to say that ‘chastity’ is the only respect of woman? I don’t find any difference between any fundamentalist religious guru (either from Hinduism or from Islam) and Mr. Nandy, who deliberately denies a women’s right over their body. Does Nandy think that woman are such helpless creatures that they would not protect themselves and a masculine bodyguard is always required to safeguard their genital parts, when most of the religious gurus consider the genital part of a woman is the most significant asset to protect her prestige. So, being assaulted physically for a woman is a normal phenomena for these intellectuals than the so-called adultery of a woman.

The irony of the present day’s growth of post-modern fundamentalism, whether religious or political, is that it tries to raise women's consciousness and not only encourages the emergence of a vocal faction of middle-class women’s determination to reinterpret fundamentalism. These activities, though, overtly show their aim as empowering the strength of women while the hidden agenda is to make the consciousness silent under a false aroma. Slowly but surely in the process, women surrender the course of their own destiny and that of their collective history to fundamentalist ideas. This is a new form of post-modern patriarchy which works under the banner of ‘progressive intellectualism.’

I can’t remember now the name of the author whose few sentences impressed me while reading her works. Her words go something like this: feminists have to be pragmatic about the choice of their strategies, overtly and covertly; anonymous and public; gradual and confronting; and incidental and continuously.

The fight against fundamentalism can also mean simply to continue living your own life as a woman.