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: http://londonprofeministmensgroup.blogspot.com/)

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.


  1. Very interesting as always. Wish I could've studied the topic as much as you did before I wrote my hurried article :)
    Thanks Sarojini,
    Hope to read more from you.

  2. dear writer sarojini sahoo
    your work, to be frank and brief, is extra-ordinarily brilliant.
    you hit the nail on the head in your peroration: what matters is happy living and happy life.
    gender-sex cleavage or any other cleavage pales into insignificance when every harmless individual is allowed to have a way of one's very own. Labels like primitive, modern, neo-modern or post-modern all remain mere labels. Let all people everywhere be happy.
    tejaswinaa vadheetamastu maavidvishaa vahai shanti, shanti, shantih
    warm regards
    rama rao

  3. I am reminded of the constant comment I get when I say I that know Bhojpuri: 'what a SWEEET language!'

    Sweet here, I think refers to a notion of submission, no longer being a contender or a threat in real-world struggles. Of having quit the big fray to dabble only in 'shringaar', the quest for beauty.

    Once upon a time Urdu was the language of a community that ruled India. Now it is being systematically stripped of that sense of power, and talked of as 'beautiful', 'obscure' (as if hiding in purdah?). Pakeeza, and not Babar.

    The same set of arguments now works in the majority-minority clash in India: 'we' don't want 'them' to go. 'We' just want 'them' to know their place as submissive wives...

  4. Dear Sarojni

    I agree with Ramarao Vadapalli, and want to add that masculine and feminine qualities are differs but they are complementry to each other,which is required for the balanced society,i appreciate many qualities of female one of them is multitasking,like doing a job and running household jobs side by side,in this field man is lacking,and if their are chances of taking risks masculine qualities are dominating while feminine quality is lacking,this is my view.
    whatever Pritish has written it is his view.

  5. @Vinay: I agree with you, Sir. I also possess the same idea that femininity is separate from masculinity. But I never think that every thing which goes with weaker characteristics may get resemblance with femininity. In our myths femininity often marked with Shakti or Energy. I oppose Nandy for forgetting this truth.
    One thing to rectify, may be typos,it's not Pritish but Ashish. He is sibling to former.

  6. Frankly, the thoughts expressed in various books mentioned above are merely personal biases and beliefs with an eye on the "market".
    Masculinity and femininity are the essence of creation and are meant to co-exist. They were created not to cause a rife or a discussion but to balance out the various aspects of humanity.
    Their roles are specific, well defined and exclusive. A man cannot give Birth....it is the role of the woman. So too, providing and protecting is the role of a man. Together they co-exist and the species continues to prosper. Take away one , and the other too goes !

  7. Frankly, the thoughts expressed in various books mentioned above are merely personal biases and beliefs with an eye on the "market".
    Masculinity and femininity are the essence of creation and are meant to co-exist. They were created not to cause a rife or a discussion but to balance out the various aspects of humanity.
    Their roles are specific, well defined and exclusive. A man cannot give Birth....it is the role of the woman. So too, providing and protecting is the role of a man. Together they co-exist and the species continues to prosper. Take away one , and the other too goes !

  8. Yes dear srojni ji it was typo mistake i also do not agree with nandy,yes it is true in our myths femininity is marked shakti.

  9. Dear Dr. Sarojini,
    Congrats once again for supplying such delicious food for thought! It is praiseworthy the way you have opposed Ashish Nandy's misconception of masculinity/feminity. As you do believe and proclaim again and again, masculinity and feminity are two sides of a coin which are complimentary for the the existence of life, both human and non-human.
    -Prof. K. V. Dominic

  10. I believe that Mr. Ashish Nandi's view about male-female differences is a stereotype that most people live by. It is always hard to make up one's mind on issues based either on one personal experience or thought. As a social scientist I would like to organize my life based on
    knowledge but I find that often my actions are based on stereotypes and cultural prejudice. I have tried in my own writing to be as free from cultural prejudices as I can. One finds that however much we like to be free from cultural stereotypes we live by assumptions rather than by our knowledge.
    There is often in our life this gulf between culturally inherited belief and rationally thought out ideas.
    I have not read Ashish Nandy's book.

  11. Dr Sujatha S1:26 AM

    Gone through your article. Interesting. I record my comments on Nandy's perception of "Feminine India, Masculine Britain" (The Intimate Enemy). Britain for instance, manipulated the women's oppression in India and Pakistani culture to legitimate virginity tests, immigration controls and policing of Asian marriages and family life. This civilising racist British state has placed feminists in Britain in a position analogous to that of 19th century Indian male social reformers, who defend culture and women in a similarly over-determined context.

    Dr Sujatha S
    Reader in English
    N S S Hindu College ,Changanacherry-686103
    Kottayam Dist, Kerala.

  12. I remember that India was once seen as the Jewel in Queen Victoria's crown. A jewel is pretty and I suppose feminine. There appears to be a sense of fluid movement in many jewels as well as sparkle.This too is feminine. Jewels are also strong, not easily broken and last the centuries. This too, apart from the centuries bit, can also be feminine.

    It always comes back to who is going to marry a gender-liberated pro-feminist male or live with one in a sexual way? If the answer is no female then you have your answer. If such males exist then they will simply fade in time or take up the standard characteristics that will win them the female.

  13. Nandy’s point of view about Sati system really stun me, you are very correct in saying “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.”
    The old social system in which position of women is like a slave is so deep rooted like a developed cancer, which reemerge even repeated surgery.
    So is the case of chastity of women. Europe abandoned religion many decades back and sex revolution started in 1960, which break all barriers and the chastity of women turns into merely a hole in the women body.
    Now with the revival of religion, the old concept of women social position and chastity of women is beginning to reemerging.
    In our region women rights are accepted, but only in books, in practice, if a woman is raped, she is considered to be a second hand woman, in ruler areas she is killed as a so called honor killing.
    About the concept “the psychology that the British were masculine in character and that India was feminine in character “, it is interesting , but it is not as it’s words look like this.
    The Sentence
    “The British believed in the superiority of the masculine traits over the feminine.”
    “That masculine nations believe one should "live in order to work," and that feminine nation’s feel one should "work in order to live.”
    It reflects the character or Identity of a Nation by which it is different from other Nations. Not the qualities capturing other nation’s territories.
    It remind me the old debate, which is something like this “one is not born but rather, becomes a woman.”
    You give explain scientifically the points which makes women biologically different from men. But to me muscular power is most important.
    In Past when lethal weapons were not invented, the victory depends on muscular power and Europeans are physical powerful than us.
    Let us consider a hypothetical situation. If we have all mighty weapons of USA than can you think who will be Masculine in character, and who is famine in character, Britain or India.
    Just imagine another hypothetical situation.
    If there is place where 25 thousands Bengalese live, they are peaceful and law abiding people, and all of a sudden about 1000 people from northern area pathan which are god citizens begin to live with them.
    You will find trepidation among Bengalis, if one Pathan talk with one Bengali, than five Bengalis came to help him.
    The Bengalis always feel threaten by physically powerful Pathans by their giant structure.
    In India, Pakistan and many other countries why people of south are against northern people as they feel threaten by northern people.

    Is English is better than French? Britain captured the whole world, on contrary France capture few countries. So French is spoken in few countries and English is spoken in whole world.
    In Past there were no human rights idea, might is right was the prevailing rule. A man who has a past record of killing many opponents is supposes to be brave and honorable person and has a high place in society.
    Similar is case if nations, like Britain, Japan and personalities like Alexander the great, Napoleon, are considered to be a great nations and personalities as they captured vast territories.
    Kalidas had written a drama shakuntla, in which every type of social issues was discussed, he was great poet.
    It is important that when he writes that immortal, it was 4th century, the time when whole Europe has no civic sense, they live like animal
    Is Europeans or precisely British are genetically superior to Indians, not at all. They are “harsh, crude, power and potentiality related to masculine characteristics”. They were not genetically superior.
    They conquered India due to physical power, as men conquered women. As women natural qualities are suppressed. So in case of occupied force Britain suppressed the natural qualities of our region.

  14. “The ultimate authority in the Indian mind has always been feminine.”This is an arbitrary statement. I feel the gentle man is distorting history. The most infamous characteristic of Indian history is that it is male-chauvinistic.Also he forgets the great resistance Indians put against the colonial attempts of the British as also the earlier colonizers. Let me tell you that it was perhaps in Kerala that the first resistances took place at Anju Thengu in Travancore and Tellicherry in Malabar. The year I suppose was 1708 at Anju Thengu and 1720 or so in Tellicherry. So, the very premise of non- resistance is wrong. It naturally follows that the other conclusions are also wrong. The foundation is weak in Nandy. How come that there is a question of feminism in colonization. He is a Euro-centric and and also anti-woman, in the sense that he uses the phrase " Masculine England and Feminine India". At least he should have remembered the paintings at Ajata of the great Bodhi Sathwa who with all pleasant atmosphere is a compassionate saint. Yeah, compassion is India's hall mark; the poor man is misunderstanding compassion with feminism. He is mixing unmixable things. He cannot mix paddy grains , pebbles and buttermilk.

  15. nandy has got it all wrong!!! the british could easily occupy India as the concept of Indian solidarity did not exist then and the people, like they are even now, were extremely gullible. They could never comprehend that could larger designs behind a merchantile interest.

  16. it's so nice to see men being supportive of women, perhaps what i wish to express doesn't fit here, but i still have to vent.

    A group of my friends were discussing corporate life, and how the CEO of a company actually got there only because she slept her way to the top.

    What i don't get is how my friend, a fellow female can spread such baseless rumours and justify herself.

    it is such a shame to see that there are women out there who look at a more successful woman and bitch about her instead of being proud.

    When i look at a strong independent woman, i am inspired and in awe. i hope people would focus their energy on positive thoughts rather than negative ones.

    To all the men here who are advocates of feminism and actually take the trouble to read this blog, I would like to say kudos to you!