Saturday, August 27, 2011

Setting the Record Straight

A few days ago, Sonia Sarkar, a Special Correspondent of The Telegraph newspaper wrote me in a letter and questioned, “What exactly is Sense and Sensuality? The website gives me an impression that it is a common platform where women facing sexual harassment on streets can write about their experiences. But what after that? Is it only a platform of empathy or something more than that?”

I was stunned at her questions. I have been blogging here for not less than five years and my bloggings have been awarded as best blog by organizations throughout the world. In 2009, the Red Room, a literary website based in America, declared my blogging as one of the best blogs of the week in September of 2011. I have been awarded the Ladli Media Award of India for gender sensitivity for one of my bloggings. Many of my bloggings have been reposted, translated and published in different languages of the sub-continent. Google statistics show I have readers and visitors from all over the world. Moreover, the articles of my blogs have been published in a book form by a reputed publisher from Delhi. Still a Special correspondent of an English newspaper could ask me such questions. From that day, I decided to write a brief description of my motto of blogging and my ideas of feminism here, which I could publish as a preface in my next forthcoming book.

Who I Really Am

I have been repeatedly told that I am never an activist and basically, I am a writer. I have also told many times that as a feminist I am more a writer and as a writer I am more a feminist. Actually I don’t know if I am a feminist in any way or not because in my idea, I have found the ideas of Second Wave feminists as stereotyped. I am just a thinker and I write about what I think gender study should be.

I have found in India, some critics compare me with Simone De Beauvoir, though I differ from her on theoretical grounds. Once, The Tribune from Chandigarh described me as the ‘Virginia Woolf and Judith Butler of India’ in its Sunday, June 13, 2010 issue. But my readers know how many similarities these two eminent personalities and I have.

So, at last I have decided to list again some of my ideas on women in brief.

The Main Concept of My ‘Feminism’

For me, feminism is not a gender problem or any confrontational attack on male hegemony so it is quite different from that of Virginia Woolf or Judith Butler. I accept feminism as a total entity of female-hood, which is completely separate from the man’s world.

To me, femininity (rather than feminism) 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 woman with a kind of pretence that we are all the same. Too many women have been de-feminized by society. To be feminine 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 within which you'll want to be more in touch and in tune with your femininity than others. Being able to choose is a great privilege and skill.

I think 'femininity' is the proper word to replace 'feminism,' because the latter has lost its significance and identity due to its extensive involvement with radical politics. Femininity comes from the original Latin word femine which means ‘female’ or ‘women’ and certainly the word creates debatable identical characteristics. It separates the female mass from a masculine world with reference to gentleness, empathy, sensitivity, nurturance, deference, self-abasement, and succorance. And patriarchy also sets the group alien from them in their traditional milieu.

There are many more differences in theories among scientists, anthropologists, and psychologist regarding the nature and behavior of the female mass. Biologists believe the role of our hormones, particularly sex hormones, and the structure of our chromosomes are responsible for such a dichotomy in gender, though some queer theorists and other postmodernists, however, have rejected the sex (biology)/gender (culture) dichotomy as a “dangerous simplification.” Psychology, often influenced by patriarchy, categorises women as different from the masculine world in certain behavioural, emotional and logical areas. Social anthropologists deny the concept of biology or psychology which keep women aside from the masculine world. Simone De Beauvoir’s saying “one is not born a woman, but becomes one” impressed social anthropologists so much that they create a different theory of feminine socialisation.

Here in my bloggings, I have constantly tried to analyse the ‘truth,’ as related by biologists and anthropologists. What I think true to my sense and sensibility, I have expressed without any hesitation. But still I don’t consider myself as a conformist because I consider myself more a writer and as a writer, I think I am always a genderless entity. In my opinion, a writer should not have any gender. But still, patriarchal society has prevailed; is there any possibility to have a genderless society?

How I differ from Simone De Beauvoir on ideas of Feminism

This section is from Wikipedia:

( There are some grammatical errors in the Wikipedian text, which I did not touch as I treated it as a quote)

Simone De Beauvoir changed the Hegelian notion of the Other, for use in her description of male-dominated culture. This treats woman as the Other in relation to man. The Other has thus become an important concept for studies of the sex-gender system. Michael Warner argues that:

the modern system of sex and gender would not be possible without a disposition to interpret the difference between genders as the difference between self and Other ... having a sexual object of the opposite gender is taken to be the normal and paradigmatic form of an interest in the Other or, more generally, others.

Thus, according to Warner, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis hold the heterosexist view that if one is attracted to people of the same gender as one's self, one fails to distinguish self and other, identification and desire. This is a "regressive" or an "arrested" function. He further argues that heteronormativity covers its own narcissistic investments by projecting or displacing them on queerness.

De Beauvoir calls the Other the minority, the least favored one and often a woman, when compared to a man, "for a man represents both the positive and the neutral, as indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity" (McCann, 33). Betty Friedan supported this thought when she interviewed women and the majority of them identified themselves in their role in the private sphere, rather than addressing their own personal achievements. They automatically identified as the Other without knowing. Although the Other may be influenced by a socially constructed society, one can argue that society has the power to change this creation (Haslanger).

In an effort to dismantle the notion of the Other, Cheshire Calhoun proposed a deconstruction of the word "woman" from a subordinate association and to reconstruct it by proving women do not need to be rationalized by male dominance.[11] This would contribute to the idea of the Other and minimize the hierarchal connotation this word implies.

Sarojini Sahoo, an Indian feminist writer, agrees with De Beauvoir that women can only free themselves by “thinking, taking action, working, creating, on the same terms as men; instead of seeking to disparage them, she declares herself their equal." She disagrees, however, that though women have the same status to men as human beings, they have their own identity and they are different from men. They are "others" in real definition, but this is not in context with Hegelian definition of “others”. It is not always due to man’s "active" and "subjective" demands. They are the others, unknowingly accepting the subjugation as a part of "subjectivity".[12] Sahoo, however contends that whilst the woman identity is certainly constitutionally different from that of man, men and women still share a basic human equality. Thus the harmful asymmetric sex/gender "Othering" arises accidentally and ‘passively’ from natural, unavoidable intersubjectivity.[13]

Why I differ from the Second Wave feminists or Western Feminists

For many feminist thinkers, after marriage a family breeds patriarchy. Happily-married women are considered false and double-crossing. The titles of popular feminist books from the early movement highlight the split between gender feminists and women who chose domesticity. Jill Johnston in her “Lesbian Nation” (1973) said married women who are heterosexual females 'traitors'; Kate Millett, in her “Sexual Politics” (1970), redefined heterosexual sex as a power struggle; whereas it was argued in Kathrin Perutz's “Marriage is Hell” (1972) and Ellen Peck's “The Baby Trap” (1971), that motherhood blocks the liberation of a woman. These feminists always try to paint marriage as legalized prostitution and heterosexual intercourse as rape. And they come to the decision men are the enemy and families are prisons.

My Thoughts on Marriage and Parenting

Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer were against marriage in their earlier thoughts. But they tried to skip from their anti marriage ideas in later periods of their lives. Marriage is a three-sided arrangement between a husband, a wife and society. That is, society legally defines what a marriage is and how it can be dissolved. But marriage is, on the other hand, for partners of the marriage; it is more of an individual relationship than a social matter. This is the main reason of crisis. Individually, I think marriage must be taken out of the social realm and fully put back into the private one. Society should withdraw from marriage and allow the adults involved to work out their own definition of justice in the privacy of their own homes.

Our feminist thinkers always try to skip the idea that offspring-begging is a natural instinct of a woman and it is related to our ecological and environmental situation. Anything against it may result in disaster. We find a woman has to pass through a different stage in her lifespan and there is a phase where a woman feels an intense need of her own offspring. Feminists of second-wave feminism have always tried to pursue a woman against the natural law because it is seemed to them that motherhood is barricade for the freedom of a woman. But if the woman works and has a career, doesn’t that mean that her working assignments would demand more of her time, more of her sincerity, and of course, more of her freedom? Where is the freedom there? If a woman can adjust herself and can sacrifice her freedom for her own identity outside her home, then why then couldn’t she sacrifice some of that same freedom and identity inside her home for parenting, when parenting is also a part of her social identity? And then what are the costs in both freedom and identity for women who have two careers -- one outside the home and one inside the home? It becomes good food for thought and debate.

And this double career of women could also be solved by rejecting the traditional patriarchal role of parenting. We have to insist on the idea of the equal division of labor in parenting. This equally shared parenting is now more common in the West where it has become an economic necessity to have two or more incomes just to survive. But still in South Asian countries as well as in many other parts of the world, we find shared parenting is a taboo factor because of the economic inequality between men and women, our crazy work culture, and the constrictions placed on us by traditional gender roles.

The conflict between American mother-daughter feminists Alice Walker and Rebecca Walker is a well-known chapter for Western feminism. Alice Walker, the mother, the second-wave feminist, obviously had an anti-motherhood idea as the other western feminists of her time. But Rebecca Walker, her daughter and a feminist of third wave discussed in her book “Baby Love” about how motherhood freed women like herself from their roles as daughters, and how this provided the much-needed perspective to heal themselves from damaged mother-daughter relationships and claim their full adulthood. What happened? This latest article is mired in unresolved childish hurt and anger (especially in the chapter “How my mother’s fanatical views tore us apart”), which would be all well and good except that she strikes out at her mother by striking out at feminism. I personally think the bitterness between her and her mother, as any woman who has ever fallen out with her mother knows, is a very painful experience and note to self, one that probably shouldn’t be written about too much in public.

In her book “Baby Love,” Rebecca Walker writes directly about unadulterated excitement and pride about becoming a mother. Rebecca argues that motherhood frees us from childhood. It is the most important step a woman can take because it creates another human being and because it makes a woman an adult.

I found this to be true for myself. In one of my stories in “AMRUTA PRATIKSHA RE” (Waiting for Manna )(1989), published many years before “Baby Love,” I discuss the queries of a woman after a lifetime of wondering whether to have children, wondering if the sacrifices are worth it, wondering if life is full enough already -- how does our generation of women decide to have children? How does any generation of women decide to have children? Or DO they decide to have children? Do they have the freedom to?

Why I Oppose Some Theories of Social Anthropologists: Natural Gender v. Learned Gender

I began the first article in my book “Sensible Sensuality” with “Bicycle and Me,” where I wrote of my experiences of childhood. As my father had an obsession for a male child, he wanted to see me as a boy and therefore, I was dressed as a boy; my hair was cut like a boy’s; and I used to play boyish games with boys instead of girlish games with girls. In my second article, I mentioned my Portuguese friend’s query, where he asked whether this being raised as a male child had any impact in my sexuality in later life or not. It is clear to me that these cross-gender activities did not make any difference in my later life, and I grew up normally as a woman.

When I studied more about gender theories, especially in anthropology, I found that the anthropologists tried to confirm that gender is not innate but is based upon social and cultural conditions -- in other words, it is learnt. But my mind did not accept the theory so easily. Margaret Mead, in her anthropological study in 1935, concluded the differences in temperament between men and women were not a function of their biological differences, rather, they resulted from differences in socialisation and the cultural expectations held for each sex. (See: “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies” by Margaret Mead; New York: Dell.). This is, I think, the earliest study that led to the conclusion that gender is more a social and cultural factor than a biological one. According to this study, it is the social environment of the child, such as parents and teachers, that shapes the gender identity of a child. A child learns what to wear (girls in frocks and boys in shirt-pants); how and what to play (dolls for girls and cars for boys); how to behave (passivity and dependence in girls and aggressiveness and independence in boys); and how to reciprocate (gender-wise thoughts, feelings, or behavior). As a result, according to their theories, these ‘learnings’ confirm an appropriate gender-wise appearance and behavior, which leads to gender identity.

The sex/gender distinction, seen as a set and unchangeable dichotomy, does not help social scientists. They might have feared that “the set of sex/gender distinction serve to ‘ground’ a society's system of gender differences, [but] the ground seems in some ways to be less firm than what it is supporting.” (See the essay: “Transsexualism: Reflections on the Persistence of Gender and the Mutability of Sex in Body Guards” by Judith Shapiro in the book ‘The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity’ (eds) J. Epstein and K. Straub, 1991). Other social anthropologists like Moira Gatens , Henrietta Moore, Pat Caplan dismiss the idea of a biological domain separated from the social. Even Pat Caplan declared that “...sexuality, like gender, is socially constructed.” From the preceding sentences, one can see that gender identities are grounded in ideas about sex and cultural mechanisms and create men and women from them.

But we also have to remember that biological sex is related to chromosomal sex, genitalia, assigned birth sex, or initial gender role which are rooted deeply in science and somehow proved rather than hypothetically assumed. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes within each cell; 22 of these are alike in both males and females. But when we come to the 23rd pair, the sexes are not the same. Every woman has in her cells two of what we call the ‘X’ chromosome. But a man has just one X and another Y chromosome. These sets of chromosomes are what make males and females different biologically.

Also, the sex hormones, primarily estrogen and testosterone, have a significant impact on the behavior of males and females. For example, why do boys typically like to play with cars and girls like to typically play with dolls? Social anthropologists think it is the impact of socialization while biological science thinks it is the role of these sex hormones which differentiate the choice children make gender-wise. Biology says the sex-specific differences in the brain are located both in the primitive regions, and in the neocortex, the higher brain region which contains 70 percent of the neurons in the central nervous system.

The neocortex is divided into two hemispheres joined by a 200-million fiber network called the corpus callosum. The left hemisphere controls language analysis and expression and body movements while the right hemisphere is responsible for spatial relationships, facial expressions, emotional stimuli, and vocal intonations. Females use both their right and left hemisphere to process language in certain circumstances while males just use one hemisphere. Females also reach puberty two years earlier than boys, as per biological science, and this changes the way they process social and sexual information.

There are still some characteristics and feelings that I think social anthropologists rule out for the sake of their theories. What about the voice pitch? Males have harsh voices and females have soft voices. This is a biological characteristic and it is related to gender. The crisis of infertility may create a serious trauma to a female, which a male cannot feel. This is a feeling innate with specific feminine gender and it is more a psychological and biological than a social problem. The menopausal psycho syndromes are totally biological and not categorised with this social gender theory. Social anthropologists emphasise that we are all trying to pass as a gender which is decided by cultural systems, not our biological sex. But that is only in a black and white world. But how about when it turns gray?

What happens in the cases of transsexuals who do not pass it? The operation does not make their bodies fully male or fully female. The genitals will not function as genuine genitals and their chromosomes cannot be changed. Voice pitch and other physical characteristics might reveal their transsexualism. Actually, the high level of testosterone in men drives them toward some specific masculine characteristics while the lack of high levels of estrogen in women creates a natural, biological push in the direction of feminine characteristics. So is this biological or is it social?

A Closing Thought

Each gender has different strengths and weaknesses. This does not mean that one sex is superior OR inferior to another. Being feminine is a woman's birthright! It is always hard for me to understand why any woman would want to give up this cherished possession. I feel proud and adore my feminine dress, grooming, carriage, posture, voice, and language.

I want to use an integrated analysis of oppression which means that BOTH men and women are subjected to oppression and stereotypes and that these oppressive experiences have a profound affect on beliefs and perceptions. I am against the patriarchy role model of society but it does not mean that I want to replace a matriarchal role model of society in place of the existing patriarchal one.

What I want is to develop equal mutual relationships of caring and support between all genders and I want to focus on strengthening women in areas such as assertiveness, communication, relationships, and self esteem.

I am here to stand against patriarchy and stand for all that it is not.