“Please do not mention women’s body or body parts in public gatherings” is perfectly a prudent and normal societal code in a patriarchal world. But it is a deeply problematic appeal to be made by those who are fighting against the insidious character of patriarchy.
To sense this truth, one must understand that patriarchy is not men; it’s an ideology, that too, a hegemonic one, that embodies the beliefs, values, norms and practices of society in which we live. It affects everybody but not in an identical manner. Presumably women and men do not experience patriarchy in similar manner. Likewise, women and men do not encounter it like those people with alternative sexuality. And not every woman or man is affected by it in an identical manner. In this sense, challenging this ideology is not the sole prerogative of neither men nor women or, for that matter, people with alternative sexuality.
However variegated its impact may be, one fact remains: As a hegemonic ideology, it is insidious. “Sexualization” is one process through which it deceptively operates. In fact, controlling women by “reducing” them to their vaginas under patriarchy is critically linked to “sexualization”.
Sexualization, Vagina and Banishment of Women from the Public
American Psychological Association (APA), gives us a useful definition of this phenomenon. According to it, “sexualization” is, amongst others, when the “person’s value comes only from that person’s sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics…and is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.”
Thus, sexualization of women is the process of treating them as sex objects and evaluated in terms of their physical characteristics only. Thus, having been seen and treated in sexual terms, women are primarily valued in terms of their looks and reproductive function.
It is from such a patriarchal vantage point that various social values, beliefs and practices have been evolved. The most visible one being the dress-codes for women – covering their bodies or ensuring that their body forms are not salient while wearing clothes. The belief that women who wear “revealing clothes” are to blame for sexual assault is a reminder of those codes in action.
Besides such overt features like dress-codes, there are insidious beliefs and practices. For instance, women are made to feel ashamed of naming their body parts. Many researchers and professionals who work in the area of human sexuality have noted that many women do not even know the names of their own body parts, especially those related to their genitalia. Drawing from his clinical practice, Sudhir Kakar, a globally acclaimed psychoanalyst, reported that some women who come from English educated middle class were unable to name (or do not know) their genitalia in their mother-tongue. Such shaming of the body is also ensured by associating swear words with women body parts.
Under such ethos, it is perfectly normal and prudent to say “please do not mention women’s body or body parts in public gatherings”, as the headline says reporting the appeal of the women group which took exception to Dr. Laishram. For, it is considered inappropriate to name and talk about women’s body parts (in public).
One crucial aspect of a patriarchal order is that sexualization works in tandem with phallocentric outlooks (i.e., a worldview which takes the phallus or penis as a symbol of male dominance). Thus, penetrative sex becomes “the” sex, which, in turn, reproduces and reinforces the idea of sex as primarily, if not exclusively, for procreation. Consequently, woman’s body is seen as essentially a site for “child bearing”. Additionally, sexual pleasure for women also becomes a secondary consideration; and hence, women who dare to express sexual desire are seen from a moral lens in pejorative terms.
And significantly, having reduced to a “child bearing” machine made of flesh and blood, family/home (or in Aristotalian term Oikos, a site to give birth and nurture children) becomes the “natural” habitat for women. Correspondingly, they have been excluded or banished from the public domain (Aristotle’s Polis or as it is equated today in English, the State).
It is against these beliefs, values and practices of the patriarchal world that women movements during the last two centuries have fought to reclaim the public domain and their body.
Women’s movements and Reclaiming the Public and the Body
Historically speaking, women movements across the globe have been trying to reclaim the public and their body against the patriarchal order for more than one and half centuries now. One way to sense that trajectory of movements is to see it, to cut the long and complex story short and simple, in terms of what has been called specific “waves of feminism”. Although efforts to gain education for women, which have laid the foundation for later women’s movement, began around the latter part of the 18th century, a significant marker of the struggle to reclaim the public domain was the suffragist movement of the “first wave of feminism”. Women demanded the right to vote to take part in the affairs of the state.
This was followed by the “second wave of feminism” with its rigorous thrust on questioning the traditional gender roles and stereotypes as well as demanding work (outside “home”). Then came the third wave in which the struggle for dignity becomes diversified and multi-vocal. Thus, beyond the feminism dominated by the white middle class women, voices of “black feminists” and others from the global south appeared. Divergence in views on a range of issues, such as, amongst others, family, sexuality, pornography etc also emerged. Similarly, women’s right to sexual fulfillment also becomes more salient than ever before. With the “third wave of feminism”, there comes a tangible recognition that “woman” is not a “singular” identity, even in their struggles, and that gender issues must be dealt with specific context and keeping in mind the intersections – class, caste, race, religion, nationality, region etc.
And with these series of women’s movements, the discourses have gradually shifted from a “status” driven idea of “honour” to that of “rights” based idea of “dignity”. Consequently, traditional terms of reference have also been changing. Since the Beijing Declaration (1995), women’s participation in public life has been moving towards securing the rightful place for women in the “decision-making” positions in public life, be that in the affairs of state or the private sectors. The issue of reservation for women in legislative bodies in India is a case in point.
“Increasing rate of C-section and its implications on reproductive health of women is a global concern…World Health Organization has been seeking to address this issue…maternal mortality is higher amongst those women who have gone through C-section as compared to those who have vaginal delivery…National Family Health Survey report (2015-16) says…a cesarean section without a medical need can put a woman at risk of short and long term health problems…that C-sections are particularly common in private sector health facilities… For a group of women who is concerned about reproductive rights of women, how does Dr. Dhanabir Laishram’s remark on “leishabi” is more important than an issue like C-section vis-à-vis commercialization of health care which affect not only women but also new born infants and society at large?”
Similarly, the struggle to reclaim the public domain as well as their bodies, women started openly talking about their body parts in public, of menstruation and pleasure etc.
Simultaneously, phallocentric views on human sexuality have also been challenged. Consequently, “rape” is not seen as an issue of “honour” (“izzat” or “women modesty”-“nupigi ekai-khumnaba” etc) but rather as “sexual assault” involving an infringement on the “dignity” of the person (breach of her rights over her body as to what is to be done with or to her body). Similarly, there has also been a call to shift “sex education” from the traditional parameters of “reproduction” (for it essentializes ideas and practices of sex for procreation only and penetrative sex as “the” sex) to that of “pleasure” and self-acknowledgement and expression.
In terms of clothing, defying the traditional injunctions, women started wearing clothes that reveal body form and skins as a way to reclaim their body (in public). In fact, against the sexualization of breasts – undoubtedly one of the most sexualized body parts of women, there has been a movement for the right to breast-fed children in public just as the right to go topless on beaches.
Amidst such efforts and assertions of women to reclaim the public and their bodies, the appeal by the women group, “please do not mention women’s body or body parts in public gatherings”, is nothing more than a reproduction of the same insidious patriarchal code that women have been fighting against.
Reproduction of the Resisted by the Language of Resistance
“Refrain from making sexist comments [by mentioning women’s body or body parts]” is different from saying “refrain from making statements about women and their bodies at public gatherings”. The latter, or more emphatic one, “Miyam tinba mifam nattraga makhal amattagi platform-da nupigi hakchang aamadi hakchanggi saruk panduna waa ngangba toubiganu” (Please do not mention women’s body or body parts while speaking at public gatherings or any other platform) is plainly absurd in practical terms.
For instance, how do they expect health professionals (e.g., gynecologists) or those who do research in gender studies and sexuality to speak without mentioning women’s body or body parts in seminars, workshops, or health and awareness camps?
But more problematic than this absurdity is the insidious reproduction of patriarchal worldviews that this appeal speaks of. For a group of women fighting against patriarchy and seeking to reclaim their bodies to issue such an appeal is like women protesting against a man who has committed a crime against women by seeking to “humiliate” him by saying, “Make him wear bangles or fanek”!
After all, under patriarchy women are treated as inferior beings, if not less than human as “(sex) objects”. Thus, many things that are to do with women become pejorative. Menstruation is one classic example (Gloria Steinem’s well known take on menstruation is to expose and debunk that patriarchal outlook). Another is the taboos associated with women’s apparels; and items like bangles become signs of women’s presumed inferiority to man. It is this worldview which informs the violence against women. And protesting against a man who has committed violence against women by making him wear bangle is an act of reproducing the same worldview which is at the root of the violence itself. In short, it is an act of resistance reproducing the resisted.
Similarly, “please do not speak of women’s body or body parts in public, is to reproduce the deep seated patriarchal worldviews that sexualized and shamed women’s body to make it inappropriate to talk about it (in public or otherwise). In short, by through this appeal, they are wittingly or unwittingly reproducing the same ethos they are ostensibly fighting.
One ought to remember that “intent” or “overall context” of what they might have sought to communicate does not absolve the patriarchal underpinnings of this categorical appeal. This is not like Dr. Laishram’s spoken words that require an additional act, some might even called it nitpicking, to decipher the word “leishabi”. We may recollect that Dr. Laishram had also insisted that his word “leishabi” must be seen in terms of the “overall context” of what he said and his intent. That does not deny the fact that the word itself is problematic and he should have avoided using it. Similarly, the appeal is deeply problematic irrespective of whatever “overall context” or “intent” these women groups have said. In fact, like Dr. Laishram’s “Freudian slip” on “word itself”, this appeal is a reflection of patriarchy coming out through via those who are apparently fighting against it.
If these women had known this fact, they would have either clarified or asked the newspapers, incidentally two of the largest selling newspapers in the state, to carry corrigendum. They didn’t while they did ask for a public apology from Dr. Laishram.
The truth is, those who are apparently trying to reclaim their body and the public even approvingly flagged off the same news-reports on their social media accounts as proof of their resistance against patriarchy!
What does it speak of? First and foremost, that even those educated women who have raised objection to Dr. Laishram’s sexist remark couldn’t sense the problematic nature of their appeal only shows the entrenched character of patriarchy in our society.
Tellingly, it is not only reproducing the patriarchal worldviews, the women group is also completely silent on the issue of C-section and its implications for the reproductive health of women. In fact, one of them even denied by saying, “This is not about C-section”!
Reproductive Health and the Deafening and Dubious Silence
It must be reiterated that the “desire to be leishabi”, which is undoubtedly sexist, is not the only reason that Dr. Laishram had cited to account for what he saw as a trend of women preferring C-section in the state. He had also cited another factor — some medical practitioners’ desire to earn money. It’s an obvious allusion to the unethical practice amongst some doctors who encourage people to go for C-section where it is not required from the medical point of view. This is a hint to the commercialization of health care in the state as well.
Increasing rate of C-section and its implications on reproductive health of women is a global concern. During the last decade, the World Health Organization has been seeking to address this issue. Studies have reported that maternal mortality is higher amongst those women who have gone through C-section as compared to those who have vaginal delivery. Perhaps, part of this differential maternal mortality rate is due to the fact that many of those women who go for section are those who are already facing complications. Besides, there are other reasons cited by WHO (e.g., lack of proper medical care).
More importantly, according to WHO, maternal mortality rate is higher amongst the low-and-middle income countries, especially due to poor health infrastructure and lack of properly trained medical practitioners. It has suggested that C-section should be done only for medical reasons.
Incidentally, the National Family Health Survey report (2015-16) says that “a cesarean section without a medical need can put a woman at risk of short and long term health problems”. It also noted that “C-sections are particularly common in private sector health facilities (41% of deliveries)”.
For a state like Manipur, with its culture of JACs vandalizing hospitals and threatening doctors to visible signs of commercialization of health care, these issues should have been concerns of any women group which speaks about and for their reproductive rights and health.
Why these issues, something that Dr. Laishram had flagged off, have been sidelined or denied? For a group of women who is concerned about reproductive rights of women, how does Dr. Dhanabir Laishram’s remark on “leishabi” is more important than an issue like C-section vis-à-vis commercialization of health care which affects not only women but also newborn infants and society at large?
Is there a class angle involved in this, if one may, selective outcry? Is it that for women from a certain income group who can have better access to better run private clinics do not worry about the globally known health concerns around C-section that affect women and children?
Are they simply nitpicking to make a mountain out of a molehill over the use of the word “leishabi” with some vested interests? Are they some publicity hungry women, sort of a Manipuri version of what is derisively talked about elsewhere as “English-speaking page-3 socialites”, looking for a controversy to be in the lime-light, to invoke Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s description, in a world of “spectacle” driven by 24×7 television and social media? And worst, is it a deliberate publicity stunt being orchestrated by some to appropriate women issues to advance their careers or sustain their legitimacy as “professional activists” by generating “proofs” (e.g., news bytes in media etc.) to show their “involvement” in “women issues”?
One hopes that the answers to the above questions are negative.
But one thing is sure: patriarchy is insidious; fighting against it is the duty of both women and men and it requires a sincere, informed and committed engagement. Besides, one must not repeat what one does not like, be that patriarchy or ill-informed utterances or indulgence in low level public discourses and troll-like behaviour. Indeed, the controversy is much more than a gender issue; it is fundamentally about our public sphere and “intellectual style”. That calls for a separate write-up.
The author is a social and political psychologist. He teaches social psychology and sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The North East Affairs)