November 29, 2007

What Happened to All The Women?

THERE IS A STORY about a Sufi saint who used to wander the city streets and people around him called him a madman. One day, he was wandering the streets near the palace on a donkey. He suddenly got off and walked up to a board in front of the palace. The board said: ‘This palace is built by the king’. The saint erased the word ‘king’ and replaced it with ‘donkeys’ so that it read ‘This palace was built by donkeys’. People were outraged and pounced on him but the saint was trying to make a simple point. The donkeys who had carried stones to build the palace had not been mentioned on the board.

This story has a special meaning to many of us because it resembles the history that we have read — and continue to read — in our classrooms. What would history look like from the donkeys’ point of view? My first encounter with women in history was in social studies class during early school days when I was introduced to the achievements of brave queens who fought ‘just like men’: Jhansi Rani Lakshmi Bai and Onake Obavva. These were accidental cases of women doing remarkable jobs. I soon discovered women either made special appearances in history books, or were not there at all! So I started wondering what happened to all the women who lived in those times? What happened to women who were not queens or did not go to the battlefields? What happened to all the women who worked their entire lives to keep empires going? Their absence implied that they had done nothing worth mentioning.

The fact is that women have also been actively involved in the making of history. But their contributions, wisdom and knowledge are largely unwritten. Women are never seen as active participants who influence — and are influenced — by the ethos of the times. Mainstream history has not only marginalised women’s lives, their interactions and contributions, but also mythologised them according to the agenda of the (usually male) historians. They are used to prop up a a male-centered view of women’s lives where women ‘contribute’ to the main agenda, which is defined by forces outside them.

There is a real need for women’s history, a history in their own voices and from their viewpoint. Feminists have talked about the significance of rewriting history from the woman’s point of view. Recording oral history is one of the ways to do this. What would women want to say about their own lives? How different would it be from what we have read in history books? Besides providing a rich social document, this would also be a way of subverting the distorted images of women perpetrated by a biased, patriarchal culture and articulate what has been silenced and unspoken.

Susie Tharu and K Lalitha in their remarkable book Women Writing in India talk about Bangalore’s Nagaratnamma who in 1910 reprinted Radhika Santwanam, a poetry collection of 18th century Telugu poet Muddupalani. The book was criticised by critics like Kandukuri Veeresalingam, who is known as the father of social reform in Andhra Pradesh. He felt that the book was distasteful as “it has crude description of sex”. He also said “Muddupalani is an adulteress, she was born into a community of prostitutes.”

Nagaratnamma retorted asking him how he could denounce a poet because she was a prostitute when several great men have written about sex more crudely and not been dismissed similarly. Then, the British were convinced that the book “would endanger the moral health of the society.” All copies of the book were seized and cases booked against Nagaratnamma for printing obscene material.

We seldom know of women like Muddupalani and Nagaratnamma as they are comfortably excluded when history is being written. I wonder how many others like Nagratnamma we would find if we started looking for them in earnest….

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7 comments to What Happened to All The Women?

  • Interesting. I can’t help thinking of an Imamura documentary called The Making of Prostitute that I watched the other day, about the lives of Japanese comfort women. Imamura makes the point that comfort women were an integral part of Japanese Imperialist Expansion in South-East Asia, as well as an important source of foreign exchange earning through the export of services – a role they are rarely recognized for. What surprised me about the film was that I’d always thought comfort women were more or less a World War II phenomenon, but Imamura documents widespread forced prostitution going back at least to the beginning of the 20th century.

    Having said that, I do think you’re being a little hard on historians. The privileging of patriarchal roles is hardly a retrospective phenomena – it is, I suspect, more a reflection of the fact that society has always privileged those roles. If we see few women in history, it’s not only because their roles have been systematically written out later, it’s also (and I would argue predominantly) because women’s roles were invisible at the time. It’s hardly surprising that the historical record of patriarchal societies should turn out to be patriarchal.

    Which isn’t to say it isn’t important to develop alternate histories that tell the other side of the story – it is – only that the patriarchal bent of history may not be so much a function of patriarchal historians pushing their agenda as their insensitivity to biases against women contained in the archival (usually written) records that they’re getting their information from.

  • Falstaff: Privileging one thing over the other is always retrospective. What you select to present as history is always after the fact, wouldn’t you say?

    Also at least one part of the silence surrounding the histories of women is the fear of what might happen if their voices were allowed to be heard. So it’s not, I’d argue, that their roles were especially silent, but that what was potentially dangerous was rapidly cast out of the bounds of ‘normal’ society, making it easier to be silent about it.

  • space bar: Not true. Social norms can, and do, define privilege before the fact. Think about careers. I think it’s fair to say that society still accords greater status to being a CEO than to being a ‘housewife’. That’s not a retrospective privilege.

    At any rate, this is not about retrospection in the technical sense. It’s about whether historians, in writing history, are systematically picking facts driven by a patriarchal bias, or whether the facts that are available to them are biased towards a patriarchal world-view, precisely because women have been invisible from social discourse throughout the ages, their roles deemphasized in both contemporary written accounts (because, for instance, they weren’t taught to write) as well as popular attention. If it’s the latter, then all the historians are really doing is reflecting the biases of the time they’re writing about, not inflicting new biases of their own. As a thought experiment, imagine some kind of ‘objective’ computerized historian who, 200 years from now, assembles a ‘history’ of our time based on media reports and official documentation of the world we live in today. I’ll bet that that history would turn out to be fairly male-centric, despite the fact that the intelligence assembling it wasn’t biased in any way.

    The point is simple – history is written about the powerful (notice that it’s not as though all men get represented in history – only powerful ones do – where are the histories of the peasants and the serfs?), and the powerful, historically, have always been men – therefore, history is about them. I partly agree with “the fear of what might happen if their voices were allowed to be heard” but I think the real equation here is power, of which voice is just one aspect. It’s not as though women in these times lived happy, independent, fulfilling lives and some historian came along and wrote them out of the record. Their absence from the historical record is a testament to the explicit and implicit suppression they faced at the time, which kept them from achieving their full potential.

  • I have oftten felt the same way – women appear in “supporting” roles in mythology – the dutiful wife who followed her husband into the forest (Sita), Gandhari the mother of a hundred sons who lived life blindfolded because of her blind husband, or the dedicated consort who confronted Yama for her husband’s life (Savitri). Very male-centric lives and goals. There are hints that these are very accomplished women in their own right, however we do not know if they have aspirations/ambitions of their own, and were they OK with just playing second fiddle ?

  • thanks for the comments!

    True, its finally about politics of power. Its just not about the patriarchal bias of the historian at work but also the gender bias in that time which existed at the point of time that the historian talks about. However, its the present pressures and agenda of the historian fianlly is the one that shapes his notion of past. That is the reason why historians like D D Kosambi or Irfan Habib for example had to rewrite history of India in the post independent India to unravel the colonial bias towards’ the natives’ that exisisted in popular history. Histories written by them talk about peasents, workers, women, dalits and many other marginalized groups, who were just left out in the mainstream colonial history.
    True , that women, dalits faced discrimination and violence against them during those times too, but there were also thousands of peasent upraising aginst fuedalism or immense contribution of women’s knowlegde and role in agriculture which have not been spoken about. Its finally, the politics that historians like Kosambi stood for that made them speak out about the people who have been left out of mainstream history.

    @ amodini,
    There are many verisons of ramayana (which are more folklore based) which speaks of Sita refusing to go through agni pariksha…somehow, one version of ramayana and a polpular interpretation of the text which is very male centred is what we get to hear. But there has been lot of work to show that many versions of mahabaratha and ramayana have exisisted from centuries together….which portray women charecters in a different way.

  • B D

    See, This is what exactly the women always do or try to do. They want to cash on others efforts too over and above the whatever some effort they contribute. Most of what they make themselves do is also inspired by their desire to make a safe heaven for themselves and also to gain the sympathy so that they can very very deceitfully and cleverly claim larger share of others efforts as their own. Donkeys don’t build castles and they don’t have the intelligence to carry loads on their own to required place from the required place also they don’t load the load on their back, leave alone the conceptualising, planning, organising, coordinating, toiling and multitude of other functions that are required and must have been done to build the castle. And why that stupid idiot was being called as saint who removed the name of the king and wrote donkeys. I could have appreciated if had added ‘ this castle was build by the king with the help of men, women, children, elefants, horses, donkeys, stones, bricks, and many others acknowledging evrybodies contribution instead of creating a discordent issue for disharmoney, which has been rightly exploited by this writer.

    Secondly, i do salute the great sacrifice of Rani Laxamibai of Jhansi and so do all of us. hats of to her. She did not raise discordent issues to gain political mileage or to pursue hidden man hating gender biased agenda or destroying of the very basic fabric of the society by breaking families and creating fatherless households with uncared children, instead lead by personal example and made true history of which all of us feel proud. She saw millions of men sacrificing their everything for the sake of country, also when she saw their selfless undemanding sacrifice, mental and physical suffering and at that point of time the contemporary women were not participating in the struggle as openly and trying to remain in the homes with the various excuses, like children, or being weaker and incapable, or being IZZAT of the family which would be taken and so on( which the women have always used when ever bad times come and use them to seek protection, to avoid hardships, to live comfortable life as possible by doing small simple jobs or through sob stories or whatever psychological means they can employ to emotionally blackmail the men folk to gain the advantageous position), at this point of time Jhansi Ki Rani Laxmibai came forward and made the supreme sacrifice with her child tied at her back and showed to the women folk not make excuses but to fight along side the men for their country. But alas today’s women purposfully ignore her example and the right spirit , instead they use it to create the disharmoney fight between the two sexes by making it as iff she only made the sacrifice in the history and that of millions of other male’s sacrifice was nothing in comparison and is not even worth mention.

    Similarly other singular examples have been picked up from the history and mythology to spread hatred against men.

    I will take another from Ramayan. I have carried out extensive study of it to know what this epic is telling us through its story, the values it is trying to inculcate in our society in our family, in governance, in our individual character etc. etc. and all through example and not by speach.It shows us the way and tells to observe ourselves and act in our best visdom. It is very obvious but some how we have overlooked the many glaring obvious facts the Ramayan tries to make us observe is that whosoever does wrong the pain has to be borne by many. It is mainly the story of two women – one is keykeyi who was the cause of destruction of Great and powerful King Deshrath’s Family (for her greed) and other was Swaroopnakha who was the cause of destruction of Great Ved Pandit and very powerful King Ravana.( for her sexual exploites). See how cleverly these two persons were used and made to suffer and rest is history.

    But one thing also emerges from the history (one can observe by the examples given by the other comentaters) all those women were independent and they did thing by their own choice. In fact the women always had their way and choice and if by some reason they failed to do so they always created chaos and destruction.

    However it does not imply that all men are good and all women are bad or vice-versa.Also past is history and present is life and living. We are definitely more knowledgeable and modren now, aware of each individuals rights, liberties, freedoms, duties, roles and responsibilities, tasks and limitations as well as importance of principles of justice, coexistence, happiness, peaceful living in society. We all should strive for harmoney and an effort to remove hatered between the genders. While removing injustices of one we should not make other suffer injustice and be pushed to the corner which will produce violence and anarchy in the society. Let their be laws equal to all. rime is crime and punishments be same irrespective of gender. No exploitation of anybody.

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