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By Gill Bottomley, Marie de Lepervanche, Jeannie Martin
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 1991 Gill Bottomley Marie de Lepervanche Jeannie Martin
All rights reserved.
Moving in from the margins: Gender as the centre of cultural contestation of power relations in south India
One of the central dilemmas of feminist scholarship has become increasingly more pronounced: feminist writings now run the risk of functioning as a mere adjunct to other, more established, discourses such as those of class, and (in the case of India) of caste. The danger is exemplified in the characteristic title 'Women and ...' (one can fill in the blank in any number of ways), given to so many books and articles published since the 1970s. The notion of 'intersections' attempts to avoid such pre-emptory alliance, as well as the old theoretico-political tyranny of attributing primacy to one structure (usually that of class) over all others. However, the notion implicitly supposes the existence of a number of independent variables (caste, class, ethnicity, gender), all of which are already constituted and may or may not come together ('intersect').
In this paper I propose instead that we attribute a centrality to gender, both as discourse and as social practice — not in the old sense of a causal primacy, but rather in the sense of a field in which a process of 'transcoding' occurs. Jameson defines the preconditions for transcoding as 'the invention of a set of terms, the strategic choice of a particular culture or language, such that the same terminology can be used to analyse and articulate two quite distinct types of objects or "texts", or two very different structural levels of reality' (1981:40). The female body may be viewed as the site at which a 'transcoding operation' — the construction of femininity — may be said to take place as a process involving castes, classes and ethnic groups in the definition and contestation of relations of power.
Even the term 'transcoding', with its origins in structuralist linguistics, is inadequate to quite capture the nature of the relationship I have in mind: femininity is rather a terrain in and over which a battle rages. Marxism, particularly where influenced by Gramsci, is wont to point out that classes are not pre-formed structural entities; rather, they are formed in the process of contestation. Marxism, however, overlooks the sense in which this contestation is bound up in practice with constructs of femininity and, more broadly, of gender. By the same token, femininity itself bears the stamp of this battle: it can be used as a singular abstract noun (as in 'the Hindu woman' or 'the Hindu construction of femininity') only as long as we accept the appearance of unity and homogeneity which is the hallmark of successful hegemonisation by a class, caste or ethnic group.
I approach the task of taking apart this facade of cultural unity and highlighting the different, often conflicting, ideological strands which contribute to making gender such a volatile construct through a consideration of a marginalised south Indian community, ritually low in caste ranking and also poverty stricken. In this community, constructions of gender are crucial to the expression of group identity and, even more significantly, to the proclamation of a kind of affirmative redefinition of the dominant caste Hindu view of their community.
The Mukkuvars are fisherpeople. They inhabit a continuous strip of coastline from the Kerala border down to the tip of Cape Comorin in south India. As an occupational group associated with the killing and sale of flesh, they are unambiguously classified as a polluted caste according to the criteria of ritual hierarchy. In accounts of Malabar society at the turn of the century, Mukkuvars are placed at a distance from the Brahmans, Kshatriyas and high-caste Sudras. They may 'adore the deities in the Brahmanic temples by standing at a distance from the outer wall' (Iyer 1981:274). Tied to an occupation which places them on the perimeter of the land mass, the people of the coast find themselves segregated; they are virtual prisoners within their own area. 'They were in former times considered an inferior race, and, as such, precluded from travelling along public roads, and consequently obliged to keep to the sea-coast.' (Iyer 1981:275)
But if the Mukkuvars are polluted untouchables to caste Hindus, that is not how they necessarily see themselves. Instead they present themselves to the outside world as brave, innovative, adaptable to change and capable of cunning in response to challenge on sea or land. Individualism and freedom from unnecessary supervision are so highly prized that any work which entails loss of autonomy is rejected out of hand, despite the long months of seasonal unemployment built into a fishing economy. Such a confident self-presentation, and the individualist values that accompany it, contrasts markedly with the attitudes of other untouchable groups such as landless agricultural labourers. Moffat (1979), writing about a rural caste of untouchables in the same south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, characterises their system of values in terms of the replication of upper caste hierarchical attitudes within the framework of religious culture.
The contrast is undoubtedly anchored in the opposing frameworks of production. Landless labourers are enmeshed in a complex web of interdependencies with land-owning castes and with the priestly Brahmans, which the British colonialists referred to as 'the jajmani system' (Dumont 1980:97 — 9). The Mukkuvars, on the other hand, depend for their livelihood on the sea — a terrain which offers them both ready, if provisional, escape from caste society and an alternative source of autonomy and identity. It is in the craft of fishing, using only non-mechanised technology, that Mukkuvar values find their fullest expression, with pride of place given to individual skills and knowledge, and to the capacity to learn and adapt to new technological influences.
Although these values are definitive of caste identity, such identity is in fact just as gender-specific as the work of fishing on which it depends. Both fishing and the values of individualism are specifically masculine prerogatives. Individualism merges with a marked masculine ideology of strength, virility and valour. Men pride themselves on being the best fishermen on the west coast, and boast of their bravery and skill. The martial and the combative elements of life are highly prized, and oral history is replete with tales of physical bravery, as well as of trickery and cunning. The caste name and the very physical territory the community occupies are legitimated by a story of the services rendered by the Mukkuvars to the king of Travancore in 1741 in his battle against the Dutch. In gratitude, the king offered the Mukkuvars a reward, and they asked for the 'Mukku', or tip of the land.
Masculinity and male work are an integral part of the way in which the community as a whole has tried to maintain its sense of self-respect and dignity in the face of the degrading status offered by caste society. Femininity and female work, on the other hand, present themselves as far more problematic — both to the community itself ^nd to the scholar trying to analyse them. The most striking feature of the sexual division of labour in the fishing community is the complete exclusion of women from the work of fishing and from access to the economic and cultural capital required to perform this task. The most lucrative occupation open to the seafaring community, which is also (as we have seen) the activity central to the community's self-definition, is barred to women.
This exclusion, which is so deeply entrenched that it is taken for granted by the community and by outside observers, depends for its legitimation on a construction of women as 'dangerous'. Fishing, which is in any case hedged about with ritualistic taboos, is seen as particularly vulnerable to women's behaviour and indeed, to their very presence. A woman crossing a man's path as he is setting out to sea is said to make the sea rough. Women must therefore stay out of sight when men are setting out with boats: Young girls will never take the shortest route between coastal villages — a route which lies along the beach-front itself — if they know the men are likely to be launching their craft. Wrongful conduct on the part of women may be held responsible not only for the success of economic ventures at sea, but for the safety and welfare of the men themselves: such a belief has a peculiar and terrible force in an occupation marked by daily risk and uncertainty.
The view of women as dangerous is partly grounded in the rather uncertain basis of male dominance in a fishing community. The very monopoly exercised by men over the economic resources of the sea requires that they absent themselves for long periods from the land-based society of the village. In contrast with agricultural society, where patriarchal cultural rules are buttressed by the actual physical presence of the menfolk, the sexual division of labour in a fishing society leaves women in charge of all activities based in the household.
The close association — even identification — between women and the domestic economy of the household only superficially resembles the association between femininity and the responsibility for familial welfare found in the dominant version of Tamil culture. In the dominant version, women are of the domestic sphere, are contained by the interior space of the house, without being able to lay claim to the ultimate decision-making responsibility pertaining to their sphere (Baker-Reynolds 1978). Without necessarily setting out to transgress the dominant codes of Tamil culture, Mukkuvar women find themselves in a very different position. Indeed, their very efforts to fulfil the cultural requirements of ensuring familial stability, survival and welfare force them to assume roles that take them well outside the traditionally female spheres of influence.
Men are unable and unwilling, by virtue of exhausting preoccupations out at sea, to follow through the financial transactions which flow on from the initial auction of the fish catch and which are realised only after their sale at the markets. It is women who keep track of what is owed to their husbands and receive the money, as well as make the decisions regarding the allocation of this scarce cash resource to various urgent familial needs.
Further, women find themselves in the position of having to mediate between the temporal rhythms of production and reproduction in fishing society. The periodicity of fishing is governed by the seasons, tides and winds, as well as by sheer chance. The economic contribution of men is therefore necessarily sporadic and uneven. When there is a spectacular catch, there is a flood of money, while lean fishing seasons mean dearth and hunger in the home. Social reproduction, however, is a continuous, daily process and has a distinctive rhythm of its own which is in direct tension with the vagaries of the fishing economy. This process, which is directly women's responsibility, concerns not only the family's biological survival — and this means finding money for food, clothing, housing repairs and medical expenses — but also the broader strategies of social reproduction involved in marriage, kinship and religious practices. These strategies may involve raising sums of money for dowry, marriage expenses and pilgrimages, payment for the education or training of children, or finding the money to send a son overseas in search of work. The male economy of fishing is of necessity complemented by a women's credit economy. The latter is conducted in relative privacy and obscurity, based on networks of neighbourhood, residence and kinship. The credit economy consists of a multitude of small-scale transactions, with women acting as borrowers and lenders, involving a range of households known to them through association of marriage, kinship, common work experiences and friendships, or through the services of female intermediaries who utilise similar social networks.
The theme of women as dangerous, but powerful, finds ample confirmation in the specific sexual division of labour in the fishing community. The ideology is one which both legitimates women's exclusion from key areas of production, and simultaneously registers the constitution of the feminine as powerful by virtue of the considerable responsibilities exercised by women in the land-based economy. Although the ideological formulation of femininity as dangerous seems tailor-made to the peculiar dilemmas confronting male dominance in the fishing villages, such an apprehension of femininity is in fact far more widespread in the Tamil country. According to recent ethnographic writing, the Tamils traditionally viewed divine power not as transcendental, but as imminent within actual objects and thus as potentially harmful (Hart 1975:42 — 3; Baker-Raynolds 1978:68 — 70). These divine forces, called ananku by the early Tamils, are malevolent and dangerous, but also capricious and erratic. Ananku refers both to the power and, by metonymy, to those who possess it. There appears to have been an ancient association between women and ananku, an association which particularly crystallised around the periods when women's bodies were perceived as 'out of control', due either to biological phenomena such as menstruation and childbirth, or to a weakening of male authority, such as occurs, for example, after the death of a woman's husband. The breasts, loins and outflows of women are particularly credited with possessing ananku. This early, rather baleful, view of divinity/femininity seems to have merged with the southern variants of a pan-Indian sakti cult, celebrating female energy. In these cults, centring on the female goddesses Kali and the Devi, the feminine roles of wife and mother are regarded as inessential to the conceptualisation of female power. It is quite common in the south to come across accounts of creation where female is taken as first principle and where women's sakti is said to lie behind everything (Beck 1974:7). The worship of the village goddess in Tamil country continues to capture the simultaneously destructive and redemptive capacities of the divine. Her worship has been associated particularly with certain forms of epidemic disease (especially smallpox), which she both causes and cures and which may also be seen simply as manifestations of the goddess.
I elaborate this view of the feminine as dangerous and awesomely powerful in some detail because it presents a bold contrast to the more commonly discussed Hindu constructs of femininity as polluted and impure (see articles in Allen and Mukherjee 1982). The inordinate attention paid to this view is a by-product of the scholarly preoccupation with upper caste, Brahmanic codes of purity and pollution. The dominance of these priestly codes is unquestionable. The goddess worshipped in the great Hindu temples is not the maverick and dangerous goddess of the Tamil villages, but a 'consort' — a wifely submissive partner to the male gods Visnu and Siva. The Tamil conception of the feminine is therefore an aspect of a subordinated tradition, but it continues to provide a critical element of tension in the southern construction of gender.
The tensions are particularly acute in the case of a community such as the Mukkuvars, for whom Hindu ideologies of purity and pollution, if adhered to, would entail quite damning implications for any attempt at sustaining a sense of self-respect and dignity. In keeping with the community's general resistance to accepting a lowly status, one finds that pollution ideology is markedly muted. Birth, death and menstruation are attended by rituals which emphasise danger, but not pollution. Menstruation rites show up this selectivity in the absorption of Hindu values very clearly. The first menstruation, which is marked in Tamil society as an auspicious and celebratory occasion, is an important part of the Mukkuvar female life cycle. However, in Tamil society, it is not simply menarche but every menstruation which is marked by ritual — and unlike the menarche ceremony, subsequent menstruations are accompanied not by celebration but by seclusion and a ban on public worship and domestic cooking. Such a practice of monthly menstrual seclusion is conspicuously absent among Mukkuvars. Women cook, go out to work, and attend religious services during menstruation, although women who become possessed by divine grace, as mediums, do draw the line at healing in the name of divinity while menstruating.
Excerpted from Intersexions by Gill Bottomley, Marie de Lepervanche, Jeannie Martin. Copyright © 1991 Gill Bottomley Marie de Lepervanche Jeannie Martin. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
1 Moving in from the margins: Gender as the centre of cultural contestation of power relations in south India Kalpana Ram,
2 Ethno-religious communities and gender divisions in Bangladesh: Women as boundary markers Santi Rozario,
3 Housemaids: The effects of gender and culture on the internal and international migration of Indonesian women Kathy Robinson,
4 The politics of difference: Feminism, colonialism and decolonisation in Vanuatu Margaret Jolly,
5 Through their own eyes: An interpretation of Aboriginal women's writing Jan Larbalestier,
6 Representing the 'second generation': Subjects, objects and ways of knowing Gill Bottomley,
7 Multiculturalism and feminism Jeannie Martin,
8 The family: in the national interest? Marie de Lepervanche,
9 Gender, class and ethnic relations: The domestic and work experiences of Italian migrant women in Australia Ellie Vasta,
10 Domesticity and Latin American women in Australia vanda Moraes-Gorecki,
11 Racism, sexism and sociology Jan Pettman,