ANALYSING FEMININITY AT AN INTERSECTION OF RACE, GENDER, CLASS, AND CASTE
A look into the experiences and 'traditions' of femininity at an intersection of race, gender, class, and caste across history and the world.
Luan Hau Man
Strutting the streets with an air of independence, veiled behind a purdah of respect and modesty, or confined within the quarters of a courtyard, kitchen, and bedroom; even in the most seemingly subjugating of societies, the feminine always wields an invisible yet bearing presence in the circles and structures of society. The izzat in femininity, the pride in femininity, the honour in femininity all have been enshrined within, though rather objectifying, the body and roles or performance of the woman. It lies in the very essence of her being.
Of course this strength that we speak of, this respect that is demanded, has many a times throughout history and till now, continued to be a double edged sword. Existing across barriers of race, gender, class, and caste, yet experienced differently. For one, there's the 'ideal of femininity' that societies tend to strive for or evoke. It is the pure, the chaste, the dutiful, the submising, and many other synonymous adjectives. Venerated in the religious images of the ‘Virgin’ Mary and the beautiful, well-groomed Lakshmi- paired with and tamed by a divine mate- (Raheja and Gold)1 which canonised the ideal Hindu woman for many, are few examples of how this ‘specific’ femininity is celebrated and seeps into the societal conscious and embeds itself there.
Indeed this imagery and preservation of purity is what gives the feminine a sort of divinity, as a being that is too precious to be touched and hence, defiled; especially by those belonging to the lower class or caste. It makes them distant yet forever pined after, be it romantically or to emulate their practices and standards to assert a higher social class position for oneself as well. But again, in this strive towards purity and chastity came the imparting of conscious and subconscious forms of behaviour. Women were taught to be ‘stand-offish’, to be cold-hearted and to not engage with men not tied to them by blood or marriage, a learning that started being passed down as tradition to protect the ‘honour’ of the chaste woman who does not cajole with multiple men and is not ‘loose’. And while these behaviours and ‘cold heartedness’ of the woman was being fetishized upon by the courtly lovers of the Renaissance, who gained the thrill of a hunt; it was also the consequent sword that stabbed the women for being stuck-up and arrogant by the very society that condoned their open expressions.
In this push and pull of femininity and society, any deviant from the classic image of the ‘pure and innocent’ was considered dangerous. The dignified purity of the woman couldn’t be aligned with a spark of sexuality, indeed women were deemed to be void of any libido in the first place. In the Indian context, it is as the psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar presents to us, in the distinctions between the good mother and the bad mother2. There is an idealised purity set against a dread of ‘lustful and rampant’ sexuality. The women were judged as running wild and wanton, even accused of witchcraft, when their subjugation by their male counterparts failed to a promising degree of mutual domination and submission. Men with robust and aggressive wives were often the targets of impotency jokes; subject to a clamouring wife whom he couldn’t beat into submission. Venturing out of the household without a male partner, or just going outside at all was the visible discomfort of many. But the restrictions were again different across the social hierarchy. To be confined and working in the house was a more upper class/caste problem, as the lower ranks had to earn their livelihood for which they required all the able bodied people to work, men and women both. The early Feminist Movements as well were and are bring criticised to be catering to the needs of the middle and upper-middle class white women, who demanded the right to work outside. This demand stood at odds with the demands of the women of colour who had always or at least, mostly been working outside to earn their daily bread. This is a conundrum not just between the hierarchical classes, but also between the coloured masses. Stereotypes of femininity have fashioned themselves to a particular race. Asians are the childlishly meek seductresses, Blacks being the boisterous and aggressive feminist power, and Whites as the pinnacle of female independence and standard. All catering to a general fetishization, but none deprived of the identity of ‘femininity’. Even in these, (highly stereotypical) categorizations, femininity continues to embody the meek, the strong, the silent, the loud, the aggressive, the compliant, the independent, and the support.
To end with, femininity can have various definitions and various contexts as well. Void of binaries, void of extremities; femininity in its purest form is the assertion of self-value, love, and respect.
- Raheja, Gloria Goodwin, and Ann Grodzins Gold, Listen to the Heron’s Words: Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996, Chapter 2, Sexuality, Fertility, and Erotic Imagination in Rajasthani Women’s Songs, Pp 30-72.
- Kakar, Sudhir, A Psychoanalytic Study of Childhood and Society in India, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Luan Hau Man