Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Feminine Indecency

My response to this and this post (once again you'll need a yahoo ID to view, though I do paste below two excerpts that I am specifically responding to):

R. wrote:
...These incidental snippets might suggest that the more modest standards of dress for women today developed some time after the 15th century. Was this due to the more conservative demands of Muslim rulers, especially the Mughals? When did India start to see the naked breast as immodest? This seems not be a traditional attitude, rather an imported one. ...

R.M. responded:
When Indian women today go bare breasted (in cinema), have short hair (depicted in Ajanta caves) and don't cover their heads, why do the Hindutva complain rather than celebrating it as a return to the freedom they once enjoyed? Could it be that many Hindu morals got Abrahamized/masculinized during Islamic and Victorian rules to the extent that now these colonial constructs are the new "Hindu ways"...

My post below:

I would be hesitant to generalize about India as a whole from accounts of the Tamil lands and/or Bali. To put it another way, I have no doubt that Islamic influence is reflected in the dress of non-Muslims in India today (it would be strange if this weren't so, given the long history involved), and certainly Western dress is rather well-represented in India today: so much so that even in remote villages one can find males wearing pants and shirts. But I do not think there is evidence of any standardized mode of female dress having prevailed all over India, whether in medieval times or ancient times. That is, dress is a phenomenon that is quite likely to be "local", particularly in an era when one mode of dress was not presented as a symbol of progress/backwardness, etc.

But both of you have hit upon an important point. As I have argued elsewhere, the Hindutva opposition to females dressing a certain way has little to do with Hindu dharma, and everything to do with the nationalisms and ideologies of which they are heirs. For ease of usage, let us call this Abrahamic patriarchy; and let us recognize that in its modern incarnation (not only in India, and not only among the Hindutvawaadis) what we have here is Abrahamic patriarchy married to a certain conception of the nation. On this view, women are not just women but are signifiers, and not just signifiers of the "old" values of honor and chastity, but also signifiers of the "new" values of national progress, strength, etc. The former by itself is problematic from my perspective; married (no pun intended) to the latter, without addressing the former, makes it even worse. In a word: cultures and societies are "judged" (and typically found wanting) by universalists in direct proportion to how "they" treat "their" women.

One has only to consider the history of India over the last century or two to appreciate the impact of this point of view. By the early twentieth century, a wife out of purdah was the sine qua non of the "modern" Muslim (with the perversely patriarchal result that many North Indian Muslim males practically forced their wives and daughters to do away with purdah), and more generally the question of sati, dowry-related issues, and child brides were all used to mark out India as "backward." The issue here is not whether or not such practices are just fine (I take it as axiomatic that they are certainly not above critique), and nor whether these practices were prevalent (as unlike the Hindutvawaadis, I do not believe that rarity inoculates one from critique). Rather, the issue is the ideological use of the "woman question," an instrumental use that is itself rather patriarchal. This trope has survived down to the present day, with Western liberals (typically) horrified by purdah (viewing the issue purely through a prism of choices exerted by hermetically sealed subjects); and even in India, where the Muslim is "marked" as backward in large part because of the condition of "his" women. And with the Hindutvawaadis, although no-one has ever attacked or stigmatized an Indian male for wearing Western dress, with women suddenly this becomes an issue.

Nor are the Hindutvawaadis the only ones: although the BJP has jumped on the bandwagon of the recent Khushboo "controversy" (in itself a rather weasel term for the social cowardice on display), the attitude of UPA-constituent PMK exhibits a classic demonstration of the term "fascist". All this reveals an instrumentalization of woman, who serves as a stand in for, as a cipher pointing to, various abstractions. Unfortunately this sort of service is not merely a legacy of India's Islamic conquerors (though it is certainly in part that), nor is it merely the result of colonial attitudes towards India (though it is certainly in part that), and it seems to me that the metaphysics underlying such a view were "in place" even prior to the Islamic invasions (which of course destabilizes the complacency inherent in referring to the phenomenon as "Abrahamic patriarchy"); the combination is highly problematic, and what is most disappointing is the utter political failure involved, a political failure in which complicity is rather widely shared (i.e., even accepting the "Islamization" thesis wholesale, why have Hindus rather enthusiastically imbibed various "Abrahamic" attitudes toward women, even though other Abrahamic attitudes seem to have been resisted rather well? Why do Indian Muslims never tire of boasting about the fact that under Islam women had property rights and legal personhood twelve or thirteen centuries prior to Western Europe, even as the boast serves as the underpinning of an explicit maneuver to subordinate women in the home and the polity?).

So the traditions and histories (not only Islamic ones) involved are undoubtedly germane to the situation at hand.  But while whether or not Indian cultures traditionally held certain views about how women ought to dress are certainly relevant, they are not as relevant as ideologues would have us believe. To put it another way, the relevance of tradition here is as raw material for a rather modern project. It is the project that is indispensable, not the tradition-- which goes a long way toward explaining why assorted Hindutvawaadis and Islamists are simply uninterested in "counter-examples" from the tradition (in a move not unlike what R.M. has alluded to, namely the liberal tendency to strip mine Sufism and hold it up as paradigmatic of "good" Islam (it always helps not to pay careful attention to the actual and rather diverse doctrines, practices and modes that are grouped under the rubric of Sufism), which move is itself complicit in the stigmatization of the "orthodox" as "bad" Islam, while rendering the Sufi as simply the precursor of the (deracinated?) liberal). Because counter-examples are not useful.


Bharat said...

Well well... Let me show you the real picture about today's modern daughters-in-law, and destruction of Indian Families:

Misuse of Dowry Laws

Satyam said...

As a very general matter (and the point is more or less made in the central post here, incidentally one which I find persuasive in its entirety) one must be very careful of formulations that either explicitly or by implication seem to 'desire' the reversal of certain (Western) colonial manifestations in a history. One could make a similar point about the 'Muslim' inheritance in India. These legacies are by definition rather tangled ones and it is a somewhat risky proposition to imagine an India sans British rule or sans Muslim role or what have you. For one it suggests the total contintuity of an earlier history (ironically this kind of error in methodology inadvertently and ironically becomes its own project), it often locates a moment of the 'Fall' (Muslim conquests, British colonization etc), it then conjures up the virtual spectacle of an earlier history (which in turn relies on the same continuity that was never 'established' in the first place). A kind of circle if you will. Now as we know this kind of reasoning can be appropriated by both the right and the left. The right engages in some rather obvious politics to this end. But the 'well-intentioned' liberal can also rely on a similar skeletal structure by reading the political, cultural and social codes of the present into this 'before-the-fall' past. Not that India could not have been a more 'liberal' place before the dynamics of Western colonization but that the indices of such liberalism have to be closely interrogated (and this is again done rather well in the post here). And mutatus mutandi for conservative projects. Again there would still be the immense problematic of assuming that terms like 'colonialism' and 'Muslim rule' and 'ancient India' and so forth are simply stable. Post-structuralist historiography performs the immense service of polemicizing against dominant Western interpretive models but it is often mistakenly taken by many in the 'subjugated' realms to be simply a prescription for 'cleansing' these very traces and re-investing in imagined pasts. The polemic responds to what in the 'present' still seeks to 'subjugate' but it does not seek to extricate (because this is rather impossible on commonsense grounds without even getting into the philosophical objections) these strands from the fabric of the 'corrupted' present and render the 'unity' of the 'glorious' or at least imagined past. As importantly there is the 'call' to us to interrogate as precisely, as comprehensively, and as cogently all paradigms everywhere. Tangentially I must add that this last becomes complicated when one is dealing with societies that have not always been 'logo-centric' and yet one is forced to come up with the right questions here operating from the very same 'logo-centric' (even if deconstructed) space. But even this caveat (while enforcing the first point here) can be more than prescriptive if it leads to a greater vigilance all round.