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The 'Virtuous Woman': Law, Language and Activism

The myth of the "virtuous woman" celebrates modesty to create both adulation and abuse. This paper, while exploring the apparent contradictions, discusses worship and abuse in the myth of the virtuous woman in the context of laws against sex crimes. It also examines the prospects for reforming legal language by feminist legal activism.

REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 26, 2008451.1 Law on Sexual Violence and Shame“…dominant modes of constituting the self – as woman, as crimi-nal, as victim – are maintained and reinforced through the con-ventions of legal language” (ibid). With reference to crimes against women, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) distinguishes between moles-tation (section 354, IPC), rape (sections 375, 376, IPC) and attempt to molest (section 509, IPC).7 While words (or gestures) try to insult a woman’s modesty,8 molestation is an assault that intends to outrage her modesty and rape actualises such intent through sexual intercourse without consent. The hierarchy between these crimes is founded on the concept of feminine modesty. The symbolic attempt of “uttering words, making any sound or gesture, or exhibiting any object intending to insult the modestyof a woman” (section 509, IPC) is less grave than section 354 of the IPC that defines sexual assault against women as an “outrage” of their “modesty”. The latter, in turn, is distinguished from thebodily injury of rape or “sexual intercourse with a woman against her will or without her consent” or through forced consent. The law maintains that an act of rape consists in “forcible ravishment of the woman” (section 376, IPC). Amongst these acts, rape is considered an irremediable offence; section 376 of the IPC holds that “The offence of assault or criminal force to a woman (section 354) is of lesser gravity than the offence of rape”. The same section cites a 1980 Uttar Pradesh High Court judgment: “Rape for a woman is deathless shame…” (section 376, IPC). Thus, rape does not merely attempt to outrage a woman’s modesty through deed or words, but “kills” it. Section 354 of the IPC defines sexual assault as the intent to outrage the modesty of a woman, maintaining that such assault is not as grave as criminal force because it does not complete it. Thus, a police official claimed that there was nothing extraordinary about the New Year Day incident in Mumbai, since it happens every where [Agnes 2008]. Similarly, section 509 of the IPC articulates a lower crime of attempting to insult a woman’s modesty through words, gestures and the like.However, such scaling of sex crimes along separate cultural-psychological and physical graphs does not consider their simulta-neous violence to limb and psyche. Further, there is an overlap between the crimes where for instance symbolic insult or eve-teasing sanctions the degradation of women in public at an every-day level to lay the foundation for sexual assault and rape.9 The law’s reference to modesty has often been interpreted in terms of traditional cultural stigmatisation of the victim to make sex crimes vague and justice difficult. This is evident from the characterisa-tion of rape as “deathless shame” or an irrevocable, rather than remediable damage. Its supposed irretrievability comes from its being an actualisation of outrage of modesty, where the attack is paradoxically ascertained in narrow physical terms. Thus, there is a concomitant and contradictory account of rape in psycho-cultural and narrow physical terms that downplay the violent aspect of rape, by foregrounding its sexual aspect [Krishnawat 2006]. Narrow Legal DefinitionsDefining sex crimes as attacks on chastity shifts the major respon-sibility of the crime to the victims. The latter often find it difficult to prove such crimes in medical and legal terms, given cultural prejudices harboured by these institutions against women enter-ing public spaces.10 This is especially the case with the narrow legal definition of rape [Panicker 2002, Venkatesan 2008], which gets obscured through poor infrastructure such as access to medical, penal and legal service. Consequently, the Supreme Court has ruled out medical testimony if the victim’s consent is compelling [Yadav 2005].11 Further, since 2005 new acts have been introduced to remove the burden of proof from the victim; the notion of evidence has been expanded to include circum-stantial evidence such asDNA profiling that also applies to the accused (ibid).12 Yet there have been many acquittals, due to delays in reporting and justice and hostile witnesses.13 Thoughfast-track courts have been set up to deliver speedy justice, they have not worked on a mass scale and have for most part benefitedwestern tourists, only because the tourist indus-try’s profit is at stake.14 Thus, it is not so much the victim, but the needs of a patriarchal society that has determined this change. Baxi (2001) observes that although there are cells set up for crimes against women, which address domestic issues such as dowry and train the victim to reconcile with her family; but they leave out sex crimes and marital rape (which in any case is not a legal offence). At the other extreme is the National Commission for Women’s (NCW) desire to punish rape by death, which is paradoxically grounded in the patriarchal assumption of domestic chastity.15 Death penalty presumes that loss of chastity is worse than deathso that its punishment is equally hard-hitting. The NCW laudably initiated debate to change existing rape laws by calling for a broader definition of rape and lifting the burden of proof from the victim, impacting amendments to rape laws. Yet its endorsement of death penalty overlooks that many women who do register rape cases withdraw due to police deterrence and social stigma. Death penalty would only curtail the annual conviction rate for rape, which is only about 30 per cent [Parashar 2004].16 By categorising sex crimes as disgrace17 of “unique” feminine modesty, or women’s fall from domestic grace, the law’s interven-tion becomes an act of chivalrous protection of women’s natural domestic purity. Nussbaum (2002: 245-54) observes that the juridical notion of privacy in India tends to mean modesty, besides confidentiality in personal information and autonomy; legal discourse draws upon and reinforces such mystification of18 secluded women. Laws against sex crimes are coded with what Mardorossian (2002: 758) calls the “ideology of rape”, which assumes women to be passive victims. The ideological divide between “free” western and “traditional” non-western ones is expressed in claims that unlike the occident, women in India will not risk their honour to accuse a person of sexual harassment without genuine ground [Yadav 2005]. However, though pativrata circumscribes the woman within domestic space in India, tradi-tional perspectives in the west also view rape as a family dishon-our [Mardorossian 2002: 763].19 There is a tendency to explain away sexual crimes by tracing them to the victim’s alleged loose or timid character (ibid).20 Such individualisation of sexual abuse, as Mardorossian (2002: 759) argues, tends to isolate victims from their social context;21 preserves the relation between the
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESapril 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly46offender and victim to the extent that the law itself becomes an arbiter of a personal (or one might add a family) problem. Patriarchal Social StructureThus, “…rape is successful because of women’s passive compli-ance with a sexual and linguistic script…” (ibid: 753). On this view, women have to remain within the “protection” of domestic space to avert rape.22 It treats victims as passive, generalises their psychology and obstructs collective resistance to or survival of sexual offence (ibid: 746-47). Moreover, both in India and the west, the psychology of the offenders and the context of patriar-chal social structure tend to be missing from mainstream dis-courses on sexual assault. As Subrahmaniam (2002) observes, such a study is needed to demystify sexual offenses.23 Available works indicate that such offenders are neither looking for sexual gratification nor are they strong. Sex crimes, as well as, the laws against them, assume that the woman’s natural place is in the private sphere of the family. The alignment between privacy and modesty has shielded it from the law condoning violence at home [Nussbaum 2002: 247-49]. The IPC does not recognise marital rape among adults and restricts it to victims who are under 15 years of age.24 Hence, rape victims are often forcibly married to their offenders [Sen 2004]. Thus, domesticity is perceived as both a preventive and remedy to sex-ual violence. The refusal to recognise marital rape or identify the home as a solution to sexual violence is because rape statutes were written by men to defend male property; since women were construed to be the property of men till contemporary times. Thus, rape was an offence to men, rather than women [Krishna-wat 2006]; it is in this sense that it is a disruption of family hon-our. It is not surprising that those who indulged in the rhetoric of punishing rape with death also mooted an early version of the Domestic Violence Bill, which defined domestic violence in nar-row terms as habitual abuse by a husband of wife and protected the domestic space from law [Karat 2002].25 Women’s domestic work does not exist in a vacuum, but is linked to other institutions such as the economy and even has global ramifications.1.2 Domesticity, Economy and LawDomestic space as a site of labour is pivotal to the economy. As Sangari (1993: 35) observes, “In India the colonial state …was not committed to the idea of marriage as a purely civil contract, rather it maintained pre-capitalist ‘moral’ and ideological config-urations.” Thus, women were isolated in the domestic set-up as property of the male members and often had conflict-ridden rela-tions given that they revolved around men. In addition, there were gradations of household chores into pure and impure, the latter were performed by a range of lower caste men and women. Thus, underprivileged women laboured in both their own homes and those of others. Sangari (1993: 8) points out that “…domestic labour would also be a site for the social production of ‘bad’women in direct, indirect or inverse relation to the utilisation of their labour…”. Those deprived of family support led destitute lives as widows, prostitutes and petty-wage labourers to become targets of exploitation by the family apparatus. These “impure women” were not subjects before the law, which only protected the chastity of the affluent. Domestic labour, in the 19th century, covered an array of activities such as “subsistence, agricultural, artisanal activity and embeds women’s labour into the family economy…” (ibid: 15). Banerjee (1999: 333) avers that women’s labour in India is regulated by patriarchal forces within home and outside it. Masses of women are relegated to low-paid jobs in the unorganised sector; they also render services within their family that are per-formed by the state in the so-called developed world (ibid: 332). These include, care for children, the sick, the aged and even the unemployed; the cult of domesticity also targets privileged women as consumers. The World Bank regards organised female workforce as “expensive” and “inflexible” to encourage the employment of women in the unorganised sector [Sangari 1999: 459-60, n17]. Structural adjustment programmes under the aegisof the World Bank and IMF applaud the women’s household status (ibid: 288).26It could be argued that the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, in effect from October 2006 adopts a critical attitude to domestic space. It broadens the definition and scope of abuse to include sisters, mothers, sisters-in-law, mothers-in-law and even live-ins as possible victims, besides wives and daughters-in-law; the bill delinks domestic violence from dowry issues and calls for a protection of the rights of abused women [Kishwar 2006]. Above all, this act is a testimony to long years of effort put in by feminist activists.27 But the basic issue of providing for pro-tection and relief to abused women in the absence of stable insti-tutions by helping the victim record the injury, go through a med-ical examination and get shelter remains; such facilities are hardly available in metros, let alone rural areas (ibid). The space outside the woman’s home has to be conducive to her resisting domestic violence; but civil society does not have such spaces for protection. In fact, as long as public spaces open women to vul-nerability and the ideology of domesticity prevails, the Domestic Violence Bill will remain a paper document. Mythological Dimension Pintchman (1993: 148-50) traces the ambivalent mythological connotation of chastity (or purity) and pollution to Hindu god-desses who embody the principles of sakti and prakriti required for creation. Sakti is a power that makes creation possible and also pervades it, whereas prakriti is creation itself; both can have useful or detrimental effects depending upon whether they can be harnessed. This ambivalence is reflected in the empowerment of pativrata who is regulated, in contrast to the disempowered loose woman (ibid: 150-51, 154). Female figures reflect the space between nature and the culture occupied by women (ibid: 151). They are disorderly in expressing nature at work and simultaneously orderly in their cultural capacity as units who reproduce social order (ibid: 154). Hence, women are also referred to as fertile field (‘ksetra’) (ibid: 152). The woman as matter has to be ordered so that she does not pollute; this is only possible when her husband owns her, any other relation is tantamount to her pollution. The discourse of pollution is connected with preserving a caste-based social order where the woman is the
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 26, 200847foundational force who ensures that there is no improper mixing of caste.Ancient Indian folklore plays out the metaphysics of order and disorder and the culture of adulation and abuse, in the unequal figures of Arundhati and Ahalya [Chakravarti 1985: 49-50]. Arundhati prevented her attackers from molesting her by con-verting them into children, power that was said to be invested in her through her chastity as a wife.28 Ahalya, on the other hand, had no such luck, she believed god Indra who assumed her hus-band’s form and gave in to him in a moment of weakness. She was injured for not being able to detect Indra’s impersonation. Ahalya was converted to stone, while Indra escaped the curse that was pronounced on him for his misdeed. That morally weak women who step outside the domestic ambit deserve rape does appear to have sanction in tradition. Arundhati and Ahalya rep-resent what Kant (1965: 393 A421, B449) has termed as an anti-nomy, a set of conflicting assertions, thesis and antithesis, which cannot be arbitrated.29 The all pervasive myth of the virtuous woman evokes contradictory responses of adulation and denun-ciation; women are violated in public only because they are wor-shipped in the domestic sphere. Yet this apparent contradiction is diffused as both attitudes result from the patriarchal gesture of controlling women where the domestic and public treatment of women are two sides of the same coin. Thus for example, Manu’s laws maintain that wives have to be controlled through domestic regimentation, rather than violence [Doniger and Smith 1991: chapter 9: 10-17]. The contradiction is illusory because, according to Kant, it originates in the urge to speculate about the ultimate nature of the cosmos. Similarly, speculation about the essential nature of women as virtuous produces images of the “chaste domestic woman”, as well as, the “loose public woman” evoking contradic-tory responses of appreciation and depreciation. These attitudes are only apparently contradictory, as they both share the specula-tive premise of reducing women to virtuous beings that cannot exceed domestic space. Speculation, thus, homogenises and gen-erates myths [Irigaray 1985a]. Moreover, it is not just a danger of thought, as Kant believed, but a risk inherent in language when it assumes a mythical dimension. 2 Myth and LanguageThe formulation and application of law are linguistic acts. Cases, lawyers’ briefs, witness testimonies and judgments hinge on the choice and interpretation of words. The above discussion reveals that the myth of the eternal feminine is embedded in laws against sex crimes. A myth is typically understood as an ancient story or a false idea that camouflages an underlying reality. However, nei-ther of these adequately problematise its circulation in culture, economics and the law. Roland Barthes’ (1993) account of myth, which he developed through the studies of French popular cul-ture in the 1950s, is more appropriate, since he takes their lin-guistic dimension into account. According to him, “myth is a type of speech” (ibid: 109), its etymological Greek ancestor being “muthos” or speech. A myth communicates its message through oral or written language or even through visual images; further in such cases language does not represent the world, but signifies it.Evoking Sausurre, Barthes regards language as a system of signs (ibid: 111-15). Signification is a process where a sound/mark/visual image (signifier) is attached to a concept or meaning (signified). A sign is a combination of the signifier and the signi-fied (ibid: 115), where for instance, the relation between the sound “leaf” and the concept “leaf” is arbitrary. Thus, language is a system of arbitrary signs whose differential permutations and combinations generate meaning, so that signs do not have fixed meanings. It lends itself to mythologising because its signs are ambiguous: “Myth can easily insinuate itself into it, and swell there: it is robbery by colonisation” (ibid: 132).Barthes (1993: 115) describes myth as a kind of metalanguage. Thus, there is already a first order sign “woman” in everyday lan-guage, which contains room for ambiguity in that it does not con-note an absolute signified. The myth, virtuous woman “steals” the sign “woman” and “restores” a static meaning to it in terms of “modesty” (ibid: 131). Besides it connects the signifier woman with the signified modesty in an absolute manner; it also rigidly equates modesty with domesticity. Consequently, it blocks off the ambiguity in modesty, whereby other possible meanings could emerge from it. Hence, “…myth is always a language-robbery” (ibid). The popular Indian satellite television image of the woman lighting the lamp (signifier) “naturally” conjures up chastity (sig-nified), which in turn rigidly refers to domestic preservation and spousal loyalty. It echoesManusmriti that “There is no difference at all between the goddesses of good fortune (sriyas) who live in houses and women (striyas) who are the lamps of their houses, worthy of reverence and greatly blessed because of their progeny” [Doniger and Smith: 1991, chapter 9: 26]. Double Function of MythThus, the “modest woman” or pativrata begins to exist when these associated concepts are immediately and without reflection seen as the natural condition of women.30 Images of dissenting women are also co-opted into it: as frustrated in their endeavour to pursue the myth. Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all history. In it, history evaporates. It is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them out, lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from. Or even better: it can only come from eternity… [Barthes 1993: 151]. Barthes aptly points out that the basic function of mythology is the naturalisation of an arbitrary contingent dimension of human experience. There is nothing in the concept’s nature, for instance the woman’s nature, that makes it vulnerable to mythologising (ibid: 109-10), so that any object can be mythologised. Myths do not deny objects, but talk about them as though they signify an inexorable order. Thus, women are not invisible, but ironically become increasingly visible through the image of virtue or mod-esty. Barthes (1993: 110) warns against eternal myths, though he does admit that there may be ancient ones. Hence, myths of gen-der essentialism have to be understood historically. The naturalisation of the historical and the contingent pro-duces immobility or a resistance to change or make the world (ibid: 144). Thus, one celebrates the virtuous woman, rather than
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESapril 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly48local women in a plurality and performative landscape. Accord-ing to Barthes, the myth calls on individuals in society to receive its message (ibid: 124-25). Individuals in turn respond by identi-fying with it, especially when they are least aware, and are to that degree complicit with the myth. Analytical readers would dissolve the myth, while the myth would become pointless, if its readers were totally oblivious to its homogenising attempts. Readers receive myth as an explicit, but natural claim; the con-cept of the myth or its intention is not hidden, but naturalised. As Barthes encapsulates, myth has a double function: “it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us” (ibid: 117). Thus, television programmes propagating the domestic woman are tested on a select audience and are also changed as per their suggestions before being aired.31 Linguistic StructureA myth is “stolen language” (ibid: 131) that inverts socially con-structed cultural phenomena into fixed natural ones (ibid: 132; 1989, 65); it is a part of language in that it is possible insofar as sentences are employed (ibid: 1989, 68). Myths circulate in infor-mal and anonymous ways through media, politics, religious dis-courses, and even everyday practices such as greeting a friend. According to Barthes, it is not enough to acknowledge that the myth contains an ideological illusion that can be exposed (ibid). Though he does hint at such a reversal in his early book Mytho-logies (1993), in his latter essay Barthes (1989: 68) suggests lan-guage as text as an antidote with its open, free and light space. Within a system of signs, or language, the myth can be acknow-ledged as contingent, since the relation between the signifier and signified is arbitrary. Moreover, it is through a play of signifiers that the meaning or the signified is temporarily posited. Hence, language also has the potential to displace and reinterpret reified words or myths. To return to the myth of the virtuous woman, it does not origi-nate in the intentions of any person or group, but is circulated through language. As Barthes (1989: 66) remarks, myths are “anonymous, slippery, fragmented, garrulous…”; their informal decentred movement also contributes to their power. Thus, eve-teasing acquires force in a mob; hence, to critique the ideological moment in the myth, one needs to shift to its linguistic structure. This is because language is not owned by either the speaker or hearer. For instance, the “virtuous woman” freezes the term “woman” by connecting it with other signs like domesticity and loyalty, which suggest patriarchy. The virtuous woman is a myth where the woman embodies a solid shape of sacrifice, a “use-value” for patriarchal economy [Irigaray 1985b: 170-97]. It equates virtue (good), domestic space, loyalty to spouse and woman. The Latin root of virtue is “virtus” meaning manliness; virtus in turn is derived from “vir” or man. The term “virtue” also has origins in the Greek “arête”, or habitual practice. Interestingly, virtue has both masculine and feminine signification. It is associated with the specific masculine virtue of “courage”, especially in war, deployed to preserve the com-munity; virtue also connotes feminine chastity, needed to main-tain the household. Thus, courage and chastity ought to be habit-ually practised by men and women to uphold the identity of their community, straitjacketing both men and women into the sexual division of labour.32 Their relation is established as one of mascu-line courage protecting feminine chastity both within and with-out the domestic sphere. The various laws regarding sexual har-assment discussed here do not exist in an interpretive vacuum, they are spelled out in patriarchal terms of masculine courage and feminine chastity by institutions such as the courts and police stations. Such monotonous inegalitarianism that has con-fined the woman to the domestic sphere suffers from what Dwor-kin (1986: 45) has termed as the semantic sting. The latter assumes that arguments in law are based on the same criteria for deciding sound claims, whereby legal terms have definite mean-ing shared univocally by the entire community. A Paradoxical SituationThus, for example, Hart (1961: 34) believes that rules of recogni-tion shared by society as a whole regarding the authority of law gives it validity. On this ground, legal disagreement is a factual one regarding the letter of the law. There can be no theoretical disagreement, which for instance arises from attaching differ-ent meanings to the same term. Those struck by the sting believe that there can be precise definitions of legal terms backed by convention. Dworkin observes that this leads to a paradoxical situation where there is no genuine disagreement in law. How-ever, legal activism regarding laws on sexual harassment exhib-its genuine disagreement regarding the meaning of terms such as modesty. Lawyers with feminist sensitivity have challenged the homogenisation of such terms, evoked alternate traditions and democratised public spaces. Instead of attaching an incon-trovertible meaning to the sign virtuous woman or purifying it of domesticity and fidelity, one could dislocate its patriarchal associations [Dworkin 1986]. In doing so, its meaning is fissured by contesting and reconfiguring it [Barthes 1989: 66-67]; by shifting from its incontrovertibility to its contingency, from its naturalisation to its acculturation. They have interpreted femi-nine notions of modesty in ways that have made visible the rela-tion between domestic space and the economic or social rela-tions that lie outside it.33 All of which is a struggle for the public realm where people are with each other, rather than for or against each other.34 Section 3 examines the degree to which language contains such a transformatory potential that can be explored by gender sensitive law. 3 SymbolicResistance In the words of Dworkin (1986: vii) “We are subjects of law’s empire…”, where abstract legal decrees govern a large part of human action as citizens. As the above discussion reveals, the law proscribes women’s movements in public spaces through a mythical interpretation of the term “modesty”. However, it con-tains many ambiguities such as silences, semantic complexities and plural cultural antecedents, which make debates committed to its spirit possible (ibid: 5). Thus, given that law is inscribed in language, legal disagreement is not empirical, but theoretical. Language has no origin in subjective intentions, cultural con-texts or ultimate natures; the author or context is not related to language as parent to child [Barthes 1989: 52]. Rather the writer
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 26, 200849or the speaker, as well as, the reader or listener, comes into existence while performing a linguistic act (ibid). Language is a form of action, a performance that creates and moulds in diverse ways; since signs are arbitrary and unbounded, they can travel contexts and subjects (ibid: 53). Thus, “…the space of writing is to be traversed, not pierced…” (ibid: 54). Language seeks a “systematic exemption from meaning”; meaning is posited temporarily, only to be overturned (ibid). This refusal of an absolute meaning or “secret” in language, “liberates an activity we may call counter-theological, properly revolutionary, for to refuse to halt meaning is finally to refuse god and his hypo-theses, reason, science, the law” (ibid). The signified (meaning) is postulated (temporarily of course) through a “play” of “serial movement” where signifiers are dislocated, associated and combined through all sorts of cross references (ibid: 59). Such a process of symbolic play is not a solipsistic one of self-sufficient speakers and writers, rather it takes the hearer(s)’s response into account.Language breaks away from the control of the author’s thoughts to reach out to others (ibid: 49), both far and near. The reader and the writer are connected in the “same signifying process” (ibid: 62). Hence, “…the birth of the reader must be requited by the death of the Author” (ibid: 55). Extending this to non-patriarchal language, words such as “virtue” or “modesty” do not have a singularity of meaning waiting to be deciphered, but contains semantic excess [Irigaray 1985b: 29; 1994: 137], whereby they can either be mythologised into a semantic sting or demythologised by such excess.35Rethinking Family Allegiance Thus, the laws which assume women’s virtue need not be inter-preted as family allegiance. The space of domesticity enhances proximate relations of family/friends, as well as, distant ones of economic corporations. It is structurally impossible for the woman to have an exclusive dedication to her family, given the contradictory and harmonious relations between the household and the social world. Hence, instead of being contained within narrow parameters of a husband/wife relation, the virtuous wife’s loyalty could be directed to the multiple relations in which she is unintentionally implicated. This entails rethinking the woman’s public presence. Typically her provocative presence has been protected by courageous men who leave the family to transcend “the mere togetherness imposed on all-slaves, barba-rians, and Greeks alike-through the necessities of life” [Arendt 1958: 36] and excel. The virtue of masculine courage belittles the domestic sphere, by freeing the individual from the security of the home (and social group) to embark on an adventure (ibid: 36).36 Such courage also underlines the chivalrous task of protecting women from harm in the public sphere, to which patriarchal interpretations of the law subscribe.37 Rewriting Arendt’s public sphere without its patriarchal and competitive aspects, one can treat it as a sphere of fragile38 reciprocity between diverse persons and communities. In this context, loy-alty is inscribed as an involvement in a plural web of relations, where women and men are not for or against one another, but with each other.39 Public appearance in the company of others transforms one’s private experiences to sharable and communicable ones in common space [Arendt 1958: 50-53]. This domain is distinct from the private sphere of the homogeneous family. It also differs from society, which is made up of standardised groups that are united through a common purpose. A heterogeneous public sphere sub-verts patriotism to family and group that strengthens stereotypi-cal notions of male courage and female chastity. This space does not exist naturally, but has to be created by overcoming parochi-alism of social group and family. By articulating their experi-ences in language, women initiate such a space towards relations of solidarity among each other, as well as, what Irigaray (1994: 20) calls “non-destructive relations” with men. Chastity in this case would consist in an affirmation of the impurity of heteroge-neous relations! Its male complement “courage” does not divide and destroy men on battlefields, but “fearlessly” overcomes com-munal allegiance to initiate heterogeneous communities in the company of women. Such a reinvention of male valour also sub-verts the sexual division of labour, since it enables men to do housework without being stigmatised. Thus, a heterogeneous public space also democratises the domestic domain. Interpreting ‘Indian Tradition’ The semantic sting of the “virtuous woman” is buttressed by appealing to Indian tradition. However, Sita, Arundhati and the laws of Manu, which proscribe women’s movements in public space, do not exhaust this tradition. Given its diverse and contra-dictory strands, the term “Indian tradition” is also susceptible to interpretation; it is hardly an immutable finished product [San-gari and Vaid 1985: 21-22]. Hence, in countering the semantic sting, the language of law can appeal to an alternate virtuous woman in tradition.40 The medieval rajput saint-poet Mirabai resignified domestic loyalty by affirming it as a necessity that can also be freely chosen. Mirabai the historical figure (ca 1498-1565) is often neglected in favour of the mythological Sita in hegemonic patriarchal discourses. Mirabai’s life and poetry abound with transgression and affirmation of the domestic virtue of devotion or bhakti [Sangari 1990a, 1990b]. She wrote her script of devo-tion onto the public space of heterogeneous social relations [San-gari 1990a: 1466]. Her struggle can be read as an interruption in a militaristic and patriarchal social order.41 During the late 15th and 16th century period of Mirabai’s life, the rajput rulers of the Marwar region of Rajasthan were locked in constant combat for territorial expansion with other rajput rulers and the Mughals [Sangari 1990a]. This period of incessant insecurity saw the ascendancy of the ‘kul’ or clan, whose smallest component was the family (and vassals) as a buffer. The clan pre-served social hierarchy by regulating marriage, where women became “counters of exchange” [Sangari 1990a: 1466] or pativrata.42 The family complemented the state’s patriarchal power, “supplying women for marriage exactly as it supplies men for battle” (ibid). The men took pride in their clan, while women adhered to spousal loyalty. Domestic service became a funda-mental virtue for women; the lower castes and vassals also had the duty of serving in the houses of their masters. The wife was eternally married to her husband so that she could serve him,
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESapril 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly50making widowhood a punishment to a life of “domestic drudgery” for women (ibid: 1467).Forging Heterogeneous RelationsSangari (1990a) observes that many descriptions of Mirabai’s life have been orally transmitted.43 However, in all stories she renounced silent domestic service to her husband to pursue poetry and spirituality.44 Consequently, she entered public space not in a militaristic vein, but through bonds of solidarity among diverse social groups that crystallised around devotion to an indeterminate god. Mirabai wandered in the company of saints and withstood the social censure that followed her rejection of family [Sangari 1990a: 1468; Mirabai 1991a, 1991b]. As Sangari observes, she “breaks with ‘outer’, ‘ephemeral’ social systems of kinship and political power only to rejoin the community in another capacity – as critic and commentator” (ibid). Mirabai rejected marital loyalty to an earthly husband as illusory; this repudiation was also a repudiation of the militaristic state.45 She symbolises Irigaray’s (1985a: 191) observation that mysticism “…is the only place …in which woman speaks and acts so publicly”.46 This is because it replaces the subject with a non-essential relation to an indeterminate force (ibid: 195) and con-comitantly questions social boundaries.47 However, one cannot overestimate Mirabai’s stress on internal transformation in a universe troubled by wars. As medieval society demonstrates, spiritual renunciation cannot contribute to changing social relations [Sangari 1990a: 1468-69]. Hegel (1979: 121) rightly cautions: “Stoicism is the freedom which always comes directly out of bondage and returns to the pure universality of thought”. Since Stoic and bhakti interiority did not challenge the status quo, they could accommodate emperors, princesses, as well as, slaves and labouring castes without dis-sonance.48 These problematic aspects notwithstanding, Mirabai questioned the woman’s “natural” allegiance to her husband to destabilise homogeneous clans where women were reduced to conduits of preservation through their reproductive function.49 Instead of segregated and atomic communities, she paved the way for heterogeneous and egalitarian communities.50 Indeed, women saint poets of medieval India, such as Akkamahadevi, Janabai, Lal Dedd among many others, envisage composite communities based on compassion and love of others.51 Such attempts to create public spaces and forge heterogeneous relations are gestures towards overcoming domestic isolationism and warring relations. Mirabai anticipates feminist collectivities of resistance in India, where women have collaborated with each other in reform-ing social inequalities, resisting imperialism, struggling against communalism, preserving ecology and striving for gender-jus-tice, among many other concerns. A contemporary figure is Bilkis Bano whose struggle against communalism and sex crimes comes from a position of underprivilege.52 She lost eight members of her family while fleeing violent mobs during the Gujarat pogroms against Muslims in February 2002. Bano was pregnant as she underwent and witnessed the gang-rape women in her family, who were murdered along with her daughter, who was decapi-tated. Eking out her existence at refugee camps, Bano tried in vain to get justice from the courts and police. The state police and courts imposed all the obstacles, as discussed, to prevent justice; she finally appealed to the Supreme Court that the Central Bureau of Investigation to undertake her case, so that an impartial trial be conducted outside Gujarat. After a long trial on camera and six years of struggle, Bano was vindicated by the Mumbai court which ordered the conviction of 12 out of the 20 accused. Bano was backed by activists and the National Human Rights Commis-sion in her struggle for dignity and the right to enter public space. She in turn has become an activist demanding justice for other women who have suffered like her. In all of this, Bano has re-inscribed the loyalty of the virtuous woman in a public context. She has defined rape as a crime against the individual, whose responsibility has to be borne by a patriarchal society. Bano has demonstrated that sex crimes are not violations of women’s inherent domestic location; rather they injure women’s attempts to participate in public life. Further, as the case of Muslims in Gujarat since February 2002 demonstrates, such crimes are attacks on women of vulnerable communities under siege. Hence, Bano’s struggle is also for heterogeneous public, against fundamentalist group identity. Routine individu-alistic interpretations of sexual injury either evoke modesty as an esoteric virtue or as a hindrance to freedom of choice; neither capture the effort for respect by victims and feminist activists who enter public spaces to speak out against such crimes, trans-lating loyalty from family to public life.Sexual violence against women disrespect and constraint growth by violating the processes of mutual recognition, which defines a dignified social existence.53 Such humiliation is experi-enced through shame, which stalls the process of social parti-cipation and growth by injuring a person’s positive self-image, rather than merely hinder the freedom to choose. Hence, the struggle against sex crimes is also a symbolic, linguistic struggle for respect and recognition. Language at the everyday level reveals a process of intersubjectivity, where it is not controlled byeither the speaker or the listener, both of who are put into a reciprocal relation. Thus, demystifying words that bind human beings to isolated contexts as domestic accounts of virtue do, is significant where they depend on each other for recognition in social contexts. Participating in Public DomainLove, rights and solidarity are patterns of recognition, whose vio-lation can harm the positive image that a person has of herself. The corresponding modes of disrespect at the individual level are corporeal injury, such as rape or the denial of rights as in eve-teas-ing. At the level of community there could also be denial of the whole group, such as stereotyping of women per se. These modes of derecognition operate together in varying degrees (that are not hierarchical) when it comes to sexual crimes against women. They violate women by refusing to allow them to enter and participate in public places, which is crucial to their development. Feminists have interpreted the law’s appeal to social mechanisms to address injury against women as the struggle for public spaces. Mardorossian (2002: 771) remarks that the victim of sex crime reveals agency through contradictory ways such as speaking out
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 26, 200851or remaining passive. Such a symbolic restructuring of the myth of pativratain language, culture and ideology, is interwoven with the non-symbolic sphere of institutions such as home, society, law, the economy and politics. Both spheres are material, so that the closures and openings in each affect the other. Althusser (1971; 1977) has termed their relation as one of “overdetermina-tion”. Materiality has many modalities: action, practice, ritual and institutional [Althusser 1971: 165-70]. Consequently, the struggle over the sign “virtuous woman” has legal and economic implications. Bilkes Bano has shown that reinterpreting it without the semantic sting will lead to justice against sex crimes and allow women to participate in the economy and public domain as equals.The year 2008 holds prospects for both mythologising and demythologising sex crimes against women in Mumbai. The New Year day molestation caught on camera could not attract punitive measures because “chastity” was mythologised, while 18 days later, its demythologisation enabled a judgment of an in-camera trial to convict some of those accused by Bilkes Bano. The process of demythologisation was catalysed when a woman’s words, namely Bilkes Bano’s, running into a statement of 145 pages, recorded for three months and spoken intermittently for six years, was taken seriously by a court on January 18, 2008 [Times News 2008]. Her speech turned the tables of shame on the accused, where it was a shame to commit such crimes and remain publicly silent. However, despite her success, Bilkes Bano cannot return to her village in Gujarat for fear of attacks, she lives in exile. She has an ongoing effort with other women to make per-petuators of crime against women, rather than the victims, accountable.54 It is a struggle for respect against the semantic sting that considers such crimes as irremediably wounding [Mardorossian 2002: 767]. 55Notes 1 Quoted in Bunsha 2008. Bilkes Bano was a gang rape victim during the pogroms against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, who struggled for six years to get justice. In a historic judgment, some of those accused by Bano have been convicted.2 There are other cases of extreme sexual violence against disenfranchised women that require atten-tion. The choice of this incident is guided by the fact that despite being recorded by journalists on camera and being relayed on the national media the main cul-prits have not been booked! Further, it has also exposed the mindsets of some of those in authority. 3 They cited many reasons for not registering a for-mal charge. Initially, their complaints were not filed due to the technicality of jurisdiction [Natu 2008], but such reluctance to complain has failed to punish the guilty. 4 The police commissioner stated “If you want to pro-tect your wives keep them at home” [Agnes 2008]. 5 Feminine myths are not unique to India, Simone De Beauvoir enumerates several European myths about the eternal feminine (1972: 171-292). 6 In a survey regarding women’s opportunities done in 128 countries, the Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum placed India at 114 [Rajalakshmi 2008]. Also see Bavadan et al (2008) for a detailed report on such violence in India. 7 Besides these sections, section 294 of IPC also pertains to sexual harassment by debarring “sing-ing, reciting or uttering in public obscene song, ballad or words to the annoyance of others”. 8 Attempted molestation is the same as eve-teasing, though the law does not use the latter expression. It is culturally approved as a seemingly innocu-ous, perhaps even, humorous violation of women in public places [Baxi 2001].9 As Agnes remarks, the police authority is in a way right that these crimes take place everywhere (2008).10 “…India’s legal response to” such violation for most part consists in “…the absence of attitudes sympathetic to women among those enforcing or interpreting the law” [Venkatesan 2008]. The police force perceives such crimes as unimportant or incredulous and does not record it [Baxi 2001]. Bilkes Bano’s statement was not recorded by the police [Bunsha 2008; Raghavan 2008]. 11 Access to lady doctors is often limited and so is their cooperation since doctors fear involvement with legal machinery [Yadav 2005]. 12 However, changes in the law have ruled out the victim’s background as evidence since 2002 [Panicker 2002].13 In the year 1991 there were 32.4 per cent convictions, while 1992 witnessed 33 per cent [Yadav 2005]. 14 See J S 2006 and Bhowmick 2008 for more details in the Indian context.15 The defence minister and the deputy prime minis-ter supported this in December 2002. It is death penalty, rather than the problematic interpreta-tions of laws on sexual harassment that received wide attention in public debate.16 On August 14, 2004 Dhananjoy Chatterjee was given capital punishment in Kolkata for the alleged rape and murder of a teenage girl in 1990. This penalty is problematic considering that the deterrent effect of capital punishment has not been proven and the state cannot be given power over the lives of its citizens. 17 The term “disgrace” is derived from Subrahma-niam (2002).18 The notion of mystification is derived from Menon (2002: 229-30), who has diagnosed such ten-dencyto particularised sexual violence even among feminists.19 As the Hollywood filmThe Accused directed by Jonathan Kaplan shows, the phenomenology of rape in a patriarchal society remains the same in the west as well.20Against such essentialisation, Mardorossian’s own studies of a range of victims of sexual injury show diverse responses from resignation to resist-ance such as anger, self-blame, passivity and sorrow (2002: 754-55).21 In contrast to traditional perspectives such as the Indian, modern western liberal attitudes uphold that women’s sexual freedom provokes rape. Both attitudes prevail in India, which is between tradi-tion and modernity.22 In the west too the victim is individualised to recover through therapy [Mardorossian 2002: 756-57], since rape is defined as the victim’s psy-chological weakness.23 Subrahmaniam cites the bookMen Who Rape by Nicholas Groth (2002), which documents various types of rapists. “…rape is a violent means of sup-pressing their own insecurity”. 24 This stress on modesty blunts the sexual aspect of the assault when victims are under age. For instance, a sexual assault on a six-year old girl was termed as “assault” or “criminal force” because the girl was judged to be too young to have modesty (section 354, IPC). This is problematic when 76 per cent of rape victims are minors having prior acquaintance with their assaulters [Parashar 2004]. 25 However, the Domestic Violence Act with effect from October 2006 does have many gender sensi-tive points that takes the complexity of violence seriously. This issue is also discussed in this paper.26 The speedy entry of multinationals into the devel-oping countries such as India has produced zones of labour for producing export goods, where almost 90 per cent of the labour force is women; this materially enacts the symbolic aspect of self-sacrifice in the “virtuous woman”. 27 This Act has come into existence due to the cam-paigning of groups such as the Lawyers Collective [Sharma 2006].28 Sita is also said to have had such powers when Ravana, the enemy of Ram came to abduct her.29 This appropriation of a Kantian concept does not con-done him of his share of patriarchal assumptions. 30 Barthes cites the instance of a black person in French uniform saluting the French flag (1993, 116, 125). This image suspends the history of racial dis-crimination to project France as an empire that is served by all sections of society. The signifier, namely, the black person, is eternally linked to the signified, namely, French militarism. This in turn circulates the myth of French nationalism, which implicitly reinforces its imperialism. Since Mytholo-gies was first published in 1957, one can date this image, which Barthes noticed on the cover of a popular magazine, to the 1950s. During this period, dissenters in France and freedom fighters for the liberation of Algeria were challenging French nationalism’s colonisation of Algeria. 31 Public opinion surveys conducted by newspapers and television talk shows in the metropolitan cities of India favoured capital punishment to Dhananjoy Chatterjee. They upheld such punish-ment for rape. Again, women’s domestic location is largely favoured by public opinion. Open Review Several international journals are moving away from closed "Peer Review" of research papers, towards an "Open Review" process. In open reviews anyone can comment on a paper submitted for publica-tion.This will increase transparency in reviews as well as enhance participation and involvement of the research community. EPW occasionally posts a submission on its web site and invites comments. Visitors to the EPW web site and readers of the journal are encouraged to offer detailed comments. EPW will discuss the comments with the author and a revised version will beprocessed for publication.Please visit the Open Review section on our web site ( to read and comment on the paper currently submitted for Open Review.
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESapril 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly5232 The sexual division of labour limits women to household tasks and men to social ones such as earning a livelihood and militarism.33 In fact, privileged women often claim to help or speak on behalf of the victim of sexual violence reproducing hierarchical social relations.34 This is derived from Arendt’s notion of the public, as a political space where people from diverse walks of life debate and discuss issues without vested interests (1958: 22-78).35“Speaking (as) woman would, among other things, permit women to speak to men…” [Irigaray 1994: 138].36In keeping with the Greco-Roman tradition, Arendt (1958: 48-49) treats virtue as excellence, where individuals can attain distinction and exhibit them; this in turn requires other people as spectators.37 The ‘virangana’ or the heroic woman of valour emblematised in warrior queens like Razia Sultan or Rani Lakshmibai or outlaws such as Phoolan Devi has been cited as an alternative to the paradigm of feminine chastity [Hansen 2000: 257-87]. However, the extent to which women’s adoption of the masculine ideal subverts the patriarchal bounds of nation and community is debatable. This is especially because of the steady presence of such myths in patriarchal politics and culture-albeit on a minor note. The virangana’s violent defense of community or honor reverts back to the assumptions of chaste women.38 This is derived from Arendt’s (1958: 222) “frail”.39 Arendt’s naturalisation of the family and society leaves no room for change and also endorses the inequalities of gender and class. She appeals to a dualism between the private familial/societal domain and the public one of politics. Against such a dichotomy, this paper maintains that the family and society should be politicised. The political, public sphere does not free itself from the family and society, nor does it have an exploit-ative relation with them. On the contrary, the public subjects the apparently natural relations and inequalities in the family and society to debate and envisages new heterogeneous relations. 40 Indeed, as far back as sixth century BC one hears the Theri nuns sing that they are gloriously free from “three petty things – from mortar, from pestle and from my twisted lord” [Chakravarti and Roy 1991]. Yet popular media is indifferent to these historical figures. Moreover, on the few occasions that the media has paid heed to Mirabai, she has been projected as a domesticated figure like Sita [Kishwar and Vanita 1989b]. 41 Sangari cautions against exaggerating Mirabai’s contest of patriarchy. For one, Mirabai is a privi-leged princess who wills poverty. Moreover, her devotional poetry has the danger of endorsing patriarchal image of the loyal wife [Sangari 1990a: 1474]. She did not mobilise women against gendered oppression; indeed, feminism as a movement for women’s rights is modern in origin. Yet Mirabai’s bhakti transgresses the domestic sphere; as Sangari concludes: “The spiritual economy of Mira’s bhakti may in many ways be homologous with the domestic and political econ-omy of the Rajput state but it is structured as ‘uncontainable’, as excessive” (1473). 42 Family units are dissolved into social groups that are neither private nor public, but are at the same time extensions of the family in providing security [Arendt 1958, 28-29, 39-40].43Also see Kishwar and Vanita 1989a and Parita 1989. 44 A strand of the Indian bhakti tradition associates the female voice with devotion [Sangari 1990b: 1537-40]. Male bhakta saints often adopted the female voice in their belief that god is a man and all his devotees are women. Lipner takes this as a sign of feminist consciousness (1993, 169). How-ever as Sangari observes, such a conclusion is not obvious. The female voice was culled from the subordinate status of women in a feudal society, whose powerlessness represented the powerless-ness of the devotee before an omnipotent god. Sangari points out that it also marks the female figure as the pioneer of another world; from a gendered point of view, transferring the female voice to a man does implicitly construe gendered relations as flexible [Sangari 1990b: 1538]. This does not denaturalise women’s “natural power-lessness”; as Sangari argues that male saints like Kabir choose to adopt the female voice, whereas women have it by nature (ibid). 45 To quote Mirabai herself, “Stri purush ke sam-bandh jhuthe…” [Sangari 1990a: 1467] or the (socially sanctioned) relation between men and women is false.46 Irigaray’s observation about mysticism refers to the history of the west can be extended to India.47 It is from the point of view of this disruption of rigid communities that one can judge the efficacy of any social gesture. For instance, perturbed by the discrimination amongst the underprivileged castes of Maharashtra, of Mahars against the Mangs, Muktabai proclaims, “let that religion, where only one person is privileged and the rest are deprived, perish from the earth…” (215, 1991). Muktabai was a Mang woman educated in the school of Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule who spear-headed the resistance to caste exploitation in Maharashtra.48 Epictetus, the slave and Marcus Aurelius, the emperor both accepted Stoic equanimity.49 Chakravarti (1985: 53-64) argues that there are many versions of Ramayana and not all con-strainSita with stock notions of wifely devotion. In an ancient version of the Rama legend, Dasaratha Jataka, Sita is Rama’s sister and yet id=3900480

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