Women, Society, Power

Abstract: In all socialised communities there is a regular power structure though it may not be visible clearly, except to the discernible eye. The power of the rulers over the ruled, the power of man over woman, the power of the dominant over the marginalised – all these form pyramids of the power structure. This paper attempts to place women in the post-colonial society and studies her relations to power. It also studies the problem of representation – can woman speak for herself or should she be represented by the post-colonial historian or better still by the intellectual?

 Keywords: colonialism, subaltern, violence, nationalist movements, feminist movement, Spivak, Foucalt’s views

In all socialised communities there is a regular power structure though it may not be visible clearly, except to the discernible eye. The power of the rulers over the ruled, the power of man over woman, the power of the dominant over the marginalised – all these form pyramids of power structure. This article attempts to place woman in the post-colonial society and studies her relation to power – what are the factors which keep her away from power? It also studies the problem of representation – can woman speak for herself or should she be represented by the post-colonial historian or better still, by the intellectual?

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, declared Lord Acton. But this is not one of the reasons why women have been kept away from power since time immemorial. Along with the suppressed communities, they form a group of the ‘subaltern’ which has been marginalised from the centers of power. Women belonging to the backward communities are doubly marginalised – both, as a social group and as a subject. Various feminist groups have attempted to bring them into the mainstream, but they have not been very successful in their professed aims.

The root cause for the formation of the various feminist movements of the nineteenth century was the denial of voting right to women. It was to correct this political injustice that women united in large numbers. From the beginning of the 1890’s till 1921, when universal suffrage was introduced, women fought a prolonged battle for the recognition of their rights and identity. After gaining voting rights, the movement tapered off slowly. The second generation of feminists fought against social and economic inequality since they found that political rights alone did not confer them with dignity.

In the patriarchal and colonial contexts women were always subjugated and treated as second class citizens. Even when issues concerning women were dealt with, their feelings and thoughts were never given any importance. Lata Mani in her essay, “Contentious Traditions : The Debate on Sati in Colonial India” in Recasting Women edited by K.Sangari and S.Vaid suggests, that the entire colonial debate on Sati was concerned with redefining tradition and modernity, that what was at stake was not women but tradition. (1989:118)

She further adds that women had “become sites on which various versions of scripture/tradition/law are elaborated and contested” (1989: 118,115). Women are seen as the ‘site’ rather than subjects of certain historical debates. Gayathri Chakravarthy Spivak also cites this in her controversial essay, ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ She says that there is a complete absence of woman’s voices in the colonial debates due to the “intermixed violence of colonialism and patriarchy.” After the citing of the problem, Spivak highlights woman as a class of the subaltern and points to the difficulty of recovering the voice of the oppressed subject. She categorically asserts that “there is no space from where the subaltern (sexed) subject can speak.” She opposes the dichotomy of the coloniser/colonised by inserting the “ brown woman” as a category oppressed by both and for whom self-representation was not a possibility.

Just as man suppressed woman in a patriarchal system, the colonialists have also suppressed women. Whenever the issue of reform came up – be it for the abolition of Sati or the fight against the purdah system or widow remarriage, it was always the men who were in the forefront trying to uplift women through social reforms. Women were expected to maintain decorum and never cross the limits prescribed for them. The men retained their power within households as the head of the family. The role of women was reduced to the minimal.

The representation of women in colonial discourse can be mainly divided into – mother, wife category. Female bodies have often been used to symbolise conquered lands. This parallelism is of course a patriarchal reinforcement and is obviously justified due to the fact that both woman and land are desirable only as long as they are “virgin”. The moment they lose their fertility, they lose all attraction. The myths also seem to reinforce this idea. The Theban myth in which the infertility of the land is connected to Jocasta and her incestuous relationship is a case in point.

The image of the Nation as a woman is often portrayed in Indian Literature. She is represented as “Bharat Mata”. By prefiguring nation –as- mother concept, many poets have exploited the nationalist sentiments by exhorting the people to throw off the foreign yoke. Ashish Nandy, in his The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism quotes Aurobindo :

I know my country as Mother. I offer her my devotions, my worship.
If a monster sits upon her breast and prepares to suck her blood,
what does her child do? Does he quietly sit down to his meal . . .
or rush to her rescue? (Nandy 1983:92)

The concept of woman- as wife in colonial discourse has not as much importance as that of Mother. The wife is portrayed as subservient to the head of the patriarchal household and her role is pushed to the maintenance of order and decorum in the household. It was only much later, during the period of nationalist struggle for independence that she is allowed to come out into the public and merge into the mainstream.

But sometimes the colonial representation of woman borders on the limits of fantasy. For the European coloniser, the ‘Other’ is visible in the representation. The Oriental woman was always represented as sensuous and passionate and given to excesses. The germ of this idea can be traced right from Shakespeare downwards. It is to be pointed out that Shakespeare was a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth and that many of his plays were written to be performed in the court or in the houses of noblemen. His eulogy of England as a colonial power to be reckoned with and of English monarchy, is only to be expected. Following Greenblatt’s theory of New Historicism, we readers down the ages, away from the awe and halo which surrounded Shakespeare during his lifetime and after, can discern certain disquietening tendencies in his ‘representations.’ Close analysis seems to reveal him as a racist and a colonialist. If we examine Miranda and Cleopatra as the two ends of Occidental – Oriental spectrum, the argument seems to grow in clarity. Miranda is an embodiment of innocence and simplicity. The ‘other’ of this is Cleopatra whom age cannot wither and custom stale and whose prime quality is her sensuous and tempestuous nature. The ‘tempest’ is within Cleopatra and she has at her knees Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony.

Elaborating on the Oriental colonial fantasy, Loomba summarises Kabbani Europe’s Myth of the Orient, (1986) thus:

The veiled Asian woman becomes a recurrent colonial fantasy,
as the recurrent figure of the Eastern Queen whose wealth testifies
to the riches of ‘the Orient’ and whose gender renders those riches
vulnerable to the European story. The Biblical story of Sheba
arriving laden with gold at Solomon’s court and willingly
surrendering her enormous wealth in return for sexual gratification
initiated a long tradition of stories in which the desire of the native
woman for the European man coded for the submission of the
colonised people.(1999:153)

Just as Spivak points to the colonizing and ‘silencing’ of the native woman, S.Banerjee in his essay ‘Marginalisation of women’s Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Bengal’ (which appeared in Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, 1989) has a very interesting comment to offer on the “silencing” and the marginalisation of indigenous forms of women’s popular culture. The blame for this rests on the popular patriarchal concept as to how an educated and cultured woman should behave. This concept of being lady-like isolated the upper and middle class women from those lower in the hierarchy who were repositories of folk art and dramas. According to Banerjee, these forms often voice the plight of women in a male-dominated society or expresses sexual desire using robust humour, sharp wit and frankness which were deemed vulgar or too explicit for gentlewoman’s ears. (Banerjee 1989)

According to Loomba (1999:164), in colonialist as well as nationalist writings, racial and sexual violence are yoked together by the images of rape, which in different forms becomes an abiding and recurrent metaphor of colonial relations. Loomba further elaborates that if colonial power is repeatedly expressed as a white man’s possession of black women and men, colonial fears centre around the rape of white women by black men. A famous example is E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India where Dr.Aziz is accused of raping the white woman Adela in the Malabar Caves.

The atrocities committed against women – example, eve teasing and rape – if properly analysed, can be seen as the perpetration of power by the dominant group of people on another to keep them in check. It is mainly the teenagers who indulge in eve teasing which can be seen as one way of attracting the attention of the opposite sex. But a psychological analysis of the “subculture” of violence is necessary to understand the mindset of the rapist. Susan Brownmiller in her essay, ‘Against Our Will : Men, Women and Rape’ has cited Marvin Wolfgang at the University of Pennsylvania’s school of criminology, who developed the theory of” the culture of violence.” According to Wolfgang, social class looms large in all studies of violent crime. Brownmiller further sums up Wolfgang’s theory:

. . . a subculture formed of those from the lower classes, the poor,
the disenfranchised, the black, whose values often run counter to
those of the dominant culture, the people in charge. The dominant
culture can operate within the laws of civility because it has little
need to resort to violence to get what it wants. The subculture,
thwarted, inarticulate and angry, is quick to resort to violence;
indeed violence and physical aggression become a common way
of life. Particularly for young males.

In the present context of war and aggression, rape has been used as a powerful weapon to demoralise the psyche of the opponent. This can be seen in the Serbia – Bosnia war where women have been subjected to rape, to scar the psyche of the populace. According to media reports, soldiers have been forcibly induced to commit rape.

Certain icons of womanhood have caught the imagination of the critics. While for Spivak, the immolated widow is symbolic of the state of repression of woman since she gains in importance only after she becomes a sati, for Fanon, the unveiling of the Arab woman is fraught with consequences. Loomba (1999:192) has cited Frantz Fanon’s fascinating account of the moulding of nationalist woman in his ‘Algeria Unveiled’. According to Fanon the unveiling of the Arab woman had become an obsession for the colonisers. Fanon further comments that the veil had become a symbol of colonial frustration for it lets the woman gaze upon the world while shielding her from prying eyes. The veil becomes the site of contentions:

. . . thus the rape of the Algerian woman in the dream of the European
is always preceded by a rending of the veil. . . . to the colonialist
offensive against the veil, the colonised opposes the cult of the
Here also the woman becomes the “site” for contending forces.

However, Judith Walkowitz in her article, ‘Patrolling the Borders, Feminist Historiography and the New Historicism’ published in the Radical History Review, cites Foucault’s views on power and the subaltern (here read woman):

Foucault’s insight that no one is outside of power has important
implications for expressions from the margins. Just because women
are excluded from the centers of cultural production they are not
left free their text, as some feminist critics have suggested. They
are not “innocent” Just because they are often on the cultural
sidelines. They draw on the cultural resources available to them –
they make some amendments, They refocus or rewrite them in a
different direction –yet they are basically bounded by certain
cultural parameters.

Foucault reinforces the idea that the people from the margins can write or rather rewrite their own history despite the fact of oppression. Spivak questions the efficacy of post colonial historians to recover the voice of the subaltern. However, she is of the opinion that the post colonial intellectuals can highlight the oppression of the subaltern. She therefore suggests that such intellectuals adapt the Gramscian maxim – “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” – by combining a philosophical skepticism about recovering any subaltern agency with political commitment to making visible the position of the marginalised.

However, Loomba critiques Gayathri Chakravarthy Spivak by stating that a too inflexible theory of subaltern silence can be detrimental to research on colonial cultures by closing off options even before they have been explored. The truth, possibly lies somewhere between Spivak’s and Foucault’s views. In order to recover the viewpoint of the natives, the dalits and women, we have to make every effort to rewrite their histories and the burden of this falls on the ‘intellectuals’ as mentioned earlier.

It has been understood that the only counter offensive for all evils against women is ‘woman-woman’ bonding or sisterhood – a social organisation which can be a source of help and succour to women in times of need. The need of the hour is to provide a balm against suffering. The evils can also be lessened to a considerable extent by the empowerment of women economically. Financial independence will ultimately lead women to take decisions independently. Let the women of the world unite for a better tomorrow.

Banerjee.S “Marginalisation of Women’s Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Bengal” in K.Sangari and S.Vaid Ed.              Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989. 127 – 179.

Brownmiller, Susan “Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape” The Vintage Book of Feminism:The Essential Writings of  Contemporary Women’s Movement, Ed. Miriam Schneir:New York, Canada:Vintage 1995.272 –282.

Kabbani, R. Europe’s Myths of the Orient. London :Pandora, 1986. Loomba, Ania Colonialism / Postcolonialism, London  and New York:Routledge 1999.

Nandy, A. The Intimate Enemy:Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Walkowitz, Judith. “Patrolling the Borders, Feminist Historiography and New Historicism” (Exchange and Seminar), Radical History Review 43. 23- 43.

Teaches at the Sree Sankaracharya University, Thiruvananthapuram Centre. Her doctoral work was on the plays of Robert Lowell.

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Teaches at the Sree Sankaracharya University, Thiruvananthapuram Centre. Her doctoral work was on the plays of Robert Lowell

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