October 06, 2014

The Appropriation of the Image of the Marginalised Indian Woman

(I began writing this post thinking of the portrayals of NE women by others... its scope unsurprisingly expanded in minutes.)

Take racial insensitivity. Add to it the entitlement of the upper class and, treatment in real life aside, you have all the makings of the image of the Hottentot Venus of contemporary times in far too many portrayals of the figure of the marginalised woman.

The Hottentot Venus was a person transformed into an object; she was born in South Africa in 1789, brought to England in 1810, and then exhibited on stage and in cages till her death in 1815. We know what she was turned into but we have no idea who she was. We often call her, when we deign to accord her any humanity, ‘Sarah Baartman’; of her given name, we can only guess. We believe ‘Ssehura’ may have been closest to it but can’t be sure. ‘Baartman’ or some variant may have been imposed on her upon being baptised in England in 1811. The appellation ‘Venus’ has never indicated anything but distorted nineteenth-century ideas of Black sexuality, and she is no longer believed to be a Hottentot by many. In fact, the word ‘Hottentot’ itself is now recognised as being deeply racist.

Turning women into objects of curiosity and entertainment is not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination. We see it, in India too, especially in the case of women who are poor, who are disadvantaged by caste, who belong to racial and religious minorities. They often have little control over their own stories which are appropriated (and distorted) more frequently than one would like to believe by the comparatively privileged to meet their own ends: to tell stories of supposed racial and caste integration (or friction) in ‘modern’ India, to bemoan violence amongst ‘the poor’ (or against marginalised women) primarily in rural India, blithely ignoring, for the most part, that caste and class are so closely related to each other that they can, for most practical purposes, almost be used interchangeably.

Of course, there can be no argument there is little violence worth mentioning in ‘upper’ caste India. Upper class women, who complain of domestic, violence and, God forbid, invoke laws against it lie abundantly. That is, lie, until they turn up dead at which point their corpses tell stories of violence which we’d much rather ignore and usually manage to. How many articles have been printed comparing the perception of cases under Sections 498A and 304B of the Indian Penal Code, the former of which applies when wives who claim to have been abused are still alive and the latter of which applies only when wives die? And how often do we see analyses of stilted sex ratios by class? Or of rape statistics, even allowing for the fact that there exists precious little reliable data?

But then again, studies of VAW and sexism amongst the ‘upper’ caste are hardly analyses which we need see: the only time when women of the urban upper class deal with VAW, it would seem, is when they deal with street harassment perpetrated by lower class men. That such street harassment sometimes escalates into rape is another issue. And talking about issues like the pay gap only reveals that one suffers from a post-colonial complex and is importing Western feminism. Because, of course, it is the stated aim of the working Indian woman to earn a fraction of what her male counterpart earns. And economic equity is entirely independent of violence.

What is left to the upper class, then, is the image of the marginalised woman, who rarely has the privilege of voice, and whose image is available for it to enact its desire to play saviour despite often suffering from abject cluelessness. And that’s on a good day when the upper class actually has or claims to have the desire to do right by the woman. Never mind that it may fail miserably in doing so, in extreme cases possibly by (illegally) circulating the images of the poor raped woman ‘for publicity to bring pressure for justice’. Never mind that such images may demonstrate what the term ‘the pornography of rape’ means. Never mind also that such images are forgotten as soon as the next sensation takes over. They arguably serve their purpose as props, for all of five minutes, to prove credentials against VAW. (Asking upper class women if they’d like having pictures of themselves in disarray upon having been raped be circulated to further justice is unacceptable, incidentally.)

It is only the image of the marginalised woman which is up for indiscriminate use. If it isn’t ostensibly for her own good, it’s in the furtherance of liberal values such as free speech. That there is no conclusive data on what the effects of pornography are is only half the story, for example. Discussions on pornography in India have consistently focussed on the free speech right (largely of men to consume pornography) and of the likelihood of pornography causing men to rape. The right to perform in porn hasn’t come up — after all, choosing to perform in porn isn’t at issue, it’s just what some people do, especially those marginalised. And as for porn being every bit as much a labour rights issue as being a free speech issue: perish the thought. They idea that porn could easily be filmed rape is somehow irrelevant, and mentioning it taints one as being against free speech itself.

The images appropriated and exploited by the upper class are rarely, if ever, those of urban ‘upper’ caste Hindu women: they are of poor women, of ethnically marginalised women, of rural women, of ‘lower’ caste women, of women belonging to minority communities — none of whom have control over their own stories as a matter of course. And as for the urban ‘upper’ caste Hindu woman: her complicity in such exploitation aside, her own story too is rarely hers to tell — the only VAW she faces is inflicted by men who are not ‘upper’ caste Hindus, urban or otherwise. And, oh, entrenched patriarchy and structural sexism, other than that which exists across class lines, are little more than figments of the imagination.