Politics of Knowledge and Women

Abstract: ”Politics of Knowledge and Woman” by Lalitha Lenin talks about the possibility of woman’s empowerment through progressive ideas. In simple terms, she discusses lucidly the artefacts and structure of knowledge, and the hierarchy of power which results in the subaltern status of woman. She underscores the importance of women’s access to reading and writing because only then can they assert themselves in the politics of knowledge.

    Keywords: woman-empowerment, power/weapon of knowledge, liberation movement, fundamental rights, power politics, identity-crisis

There is no cultural or social sphere of discourse where contemplation or commentary on the woman, who is condemned to be exalted and all enduring is not taking place. Efforts at, effecting empowerment of the woman is unfolding before us as a mockery of life and a challenge of the times. Even progressive movements cannot escape, but face this dilemma.

Woman’s empowerment is possible only through development based on progressive ideas. It is now widely recognised that knowledge/information is the master-resource essential for spiritual as well as material evolution. This is because, in the absence of knowledge, there is no means of discerning between right and wrong or applying it in practical life.

We must examine how the hegemonic systems distance woman from knowledge even while proclaiming the necessity of a sagacious and rational woman. This will help us to realise the impact the politics of knowledge exerts on the female psyche and the consequent hardships woman has to face throughout life.

When the feminist movements that germinated in western societies sought space in the tradition bound culture and ethos of Kerala, even visionaries were not able to foresee that it would develop into a question as complex as the present one. There were thousands of people who could identify with the dialectics of capitalist proletariat class relations as their individual experience and strive hard to restructure society for liberating humanity. But, when it comes to the woman’s cause, such a splendid humane concern and yearning for emancipation is totally absent. This is true not only in the context of Kerala, but of all the world. It is hard to comprehend and to come to terms with, but a fact all the same, that even the masters of progressive cause have been compelled into seeing woman as subaltern everywhere. It is true that in some developed countries, revolutionary movements have succeeded in helping women exorcise spectres of the past and attain new realms of knowledge and self confidence. But they failed in maintaining the tempo. The fundamental reason behind the attitude to the woman as subaltern, lies in the politics of knowledge. Here, what has to be examined is the ethics of conveniently forgetting who is responsible for the entity of the uninformed woman. This inquiry will give us an insight into the structure of knowledge and the essence of power.

Artefacts and the structure of knowledge

Society is not just a collective of individuals; it is also the mutuality of knowledge. The grand structure of knowledge that has evolved out of the integration of complex personal experience is still unknown to the human mind and science. That is the reason why sensibility requires convenient structures of human creation. It is these contrived artefacts that influence man’s actions and activities. Whether it be art or literature, science or history, man’s progress is perceived through artefacts. Artefacts are systems formed out of signs and related rules. All in all, it is true there can be no artefact without structure and no sensibility without artefacts.

Hierarchy of Power

Each structure is an order in itself. It is this diversity of orders that construes the basis of man’s diversity in thought. Not merely man’s logic and imagination, but also his ego, come to roost in these structures. That is why when orders evolve, authority becomes integral to it. This authority places itself against the path of progress by opposing change even when there is a shift in the context. Thus the basic characteristic of structures assume the hierarchy of power. Even the most objective scientific knowledge cannot free itself from this limitation.

The first step that all social reformation movements has to take is to distinguish the prominent traits of domination that are present in artefacts because all worldly knowledge is organised in terms of structures of power which can be discerned only by means of artefacts. It is the awareness that the constituent elements of these structures rest on a hierarchy and that they are intrinsically related to male dominance that has paved the way for women’s liberation movements. The source of this enlightenment is progressive ideology itself.

  The subaltern status of woman

It is a fact that woman is denigrated as second rate in the structure of society and in the culture that vitalises it. It is time to conduct a bonafide investigation into the actual reasons for this continuing subjugation, though of course, woman is not the only subaltern. It is amazing that though women make up more than half the population, no proper attempt has been made to unravel the complex skeins of her subjugation. Why is it that even before her personality has evolved, woman is put down to a secondary position, as if her status was determined by her birth itself? Why is she excluded from power struggles? Why are the most important social obligations as pregnancy, delivery, motherhood, home making, nursing etc., considered marginal? For what reason is second class citizenship forced on her? Why are her rights on wealth and government ignored? Why is she denied freedom over her own body and gestures? Why are woman’s grievances and agitations deliberately repressed in history? Why do the sharp ends of her arguments get blunted? Why are her words subverted to mere witticisms? Why is she being instilled with the false belief that the very things she hates are the correct ones and thus made a betrayer of progress? What is the politics behind making her more and more subaltern within the subaltern itself and determining her status per se?

The Politics of Knowledge

The answers to all these questions and many more generally lie in the politics of distancing woman from self realisation, social awareness, knowledge and power. It is when we visualise the inseparable nexus between knowledge and power that it becomes clear how the woman kept away from the realm of knowledge is distanced from the mainstream of culture and hence from the structures of power.

The politics of knowledge has been in vogue from time immemorial. It came into play whenever those who understood the potential value of knowledge tried to possess it and use it for their own purposes. That is what happened in ancient India when those of lower castes and the women were kept outside the purview of knowledge. The politics involved in declaring knowledge divine and sacrosanct, keeping out of bound for those of lower birth, can be understood easily enough now. Even as we agree that knowledge has to be used and nourished for and by the common populace, there are people who tend to possess it privately and try to dominate it and exclude others from it. There is nothing wrong in imagining that if seeds had been sown in time into the fertile minds of India, we could have reaped the benefits a hundred fold by now and occupied the forefront of knowledge. Western civilziations, astute enough to realise that knowledge is not something to be preserved intact but is a fundamental right of the people, universalised it through print. In course of time they came to gain supremacy of knowledge. The right to define goes hand in hand with absolute control over knowledge and so, the West earned the right to define the East, and the male, to define the female.

Even during those periods in history when monarchy and religious authority functioned hand in glove, petty rivalries between them were common. But never was it decided as to which had greater potency. To this day the inner structures of religion and administration are throbbing with the pressures of this power politics. Religion constructs power structures under cover of virtuous spirituality whereas government does it directly. Therefore we give religion a halo of divinity and government an unholy connotation of political foul play. The common people and women, who do not realise the truth behind these tactics, move closer to religion and keep aloof from politics. They are incapable of recognising that religious dominations grow and gain strength inside veiled structures challenging secular political approaches. These secretive games of politics, as a whole, have been successful in keeping women away from the mainstream of action and decision making.

Women’s Writing and Reading

When we classify human activities according to their gravity, reading and writing occupy the pride of place due to their intellectual nature. Men, who had the privilege to deal with serious matters, had positions of dominance in these lofty provinces of thought. But it is the emotional aspect that gets highlighted when woman trespasses into this holy precinct. More often than not women’s works are whetted facetiously. When more and more women entered the literary field with courage and commitment, ‘women’s writing’ became a controversial issue. Following this, the politics of viewing women’s work from an erotic angle and the right of defining women’s writing surfaced. This is not surprising considering that there is political discrimination in gender bias also

Definitions are essential for transactions to be transparent. But something that defies definition has unlimited possibilities. When something abstract is brought under a definition with selfish intent and limited experience, its expression of identity becomes distorted. That is exactly what happened in woman’s case, leading to a crisis of identity. When a woman tries to express what her essential selfhood is, the prevalent right of definition stands challenged. These ripples now visible in literature definitely indicate the dawn of a new era. Here we see the woman making inroads into man’s monopoly over the politics of knowledge. But the term man does not imply the biological class based on sexual distinction. He should be recognised as a diabolical force in the social consciousness that tries to keep absolute power and the right to define within himself.

It is not possible to access knowledge just by learning the alphabet or by mechanical reading. As long as language remains a mere blotting paper and is not wielded as a weapon, language itself turns to be a fertile field for consumerist culture. India is proving this phenomenon aptly enough. Woman’s role in this market economy is increasing day by day, because she is kept at a distance from reading and thereby true learning.

From the time when books became generally accessible, women have been present in those societies which appropriated the increasing knowledge for their own development. But they never scaled the heights of reading nor attained the opportunities of mental development that men had. So women neglected reading and this adversely affected their knowledge. And, in course of time, women pushed out of the continuous stream of knowledge found it almost impossible to catch up with it. The ever-expanding horizons of knowledge unfolding via the electronic media and print, not only confuse and frighten woman, but also renders her helpless. At the same time man continues to reign supreme over this world of knowledge enjoying its fruits to the maximum. The gap between man and woman in the matter of reading experience is this distance of knowledge itself. The novel challenges in the field of information technology only widens this gap. This happens precisely because woman is still unable to involve herself in the politics of knowledge.


When all power structures place woman in a subordinate position, she can develop the will power to get involved in the politics of knowledge only by reinforcing her right for equal opportunities as a human being. Ours is a society wherein almost everyone privately wishes to protect the traditional family structure and the related cultural and social ethos without the smallest fissure in its facade. We have to realise the fact that preserving this facade at the cost of sacrificing woman’s rights is not just man’s desire but that of patriarchy. It is in this mode of thought that the woman has to intervene and act. For this woman requires the realisation of her right in the power of knowledge, organised activity and hardwork. And ultimately, this has to be constituted within the framework of the noble ideal of human emancipation, using the weapon of knowledge.

Translated from Malayalam by Sulochana Rammohan


LALITHA LENIN. Well known poet in Malayalam; Lalitha Lenin teaches at the Department of Library and Information Science, University of Kerala. Has made significant contributions to feminist studies.


SULOCHANA RAM MOHAN. Promising short story writer and poet. Has published critical studies of the stories of Chandramathi and Ashitha.

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Well known poet in Malayalam; Lalitha Lenin teaches at the Department of Library and Information Science, University of Kerala. Has made significant contributions to feminist studies.

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