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Volume: IV, Issue: I, January-June 2013


INTERSECTING SPACES: POLITICS OF GLOBALISATION AND INDIAN WOMANHOOD







Abstract

Considerable scholarly attention has been directed in recent times towards the study of the economic and political dimensions of globalisation. However, equally significant, if not more, is the study of globalization in the realm of culture, which is as much fraught with ‘asymmetry’, as it does in the realms of economics and politics. The dramatic rise of the global ‘popular culture’ marks an attempt at the universalization of the culture/s of the dominant nations. The trajectory of this emerging material culture is solely shaped by the market. The spread of the consumptionist culture has resulted in dramatic shifts in the socio-cultural milieu in the local cultures of several nations, and India is no exception to this. The ideological impact of globalization and hegemony of the market has permeated in varying measures the psyche and lifestyle of people belonging to all classes and groups. In such a culture, the material becomes supreme, commodity starts reigning and ultimately becomes the sole determining power. A society is being generated which is confronted by the commodity’s seductive presence at the centre of the material world, and by the commodity’s hegemonic hold over human imagination and desire. With market becoming the predominant force determining the fate of the humanity, identities can now be generated and melted down by the market; they can also be bought and sold in and for the market. A new definition of Indian womanhood is being produced by the market. As a reaction to this new definition of ‘modern Indian womanhood’, fundamentalist forces have opened the front in trying to keep the traditional Indian womanhood alive. Such attempts are bereft of any purposeful exposition of womanhood in India. Thus, the construction of the ‘new woman’ by modernity seems to be simultaneously attempting at subverting and reviving dominant patriarchal constructions of feminine identity and sexuality. The iconic image of ‘new woman’ is reinforced in a mass-media consumer world. The mass media, which has a deep permeability into people’s psyche, is completely under the dictation of the market. Indian womanhood is, thus, confronted with multifaceted challenges to her definition, identity and dignity in the wake of aforementioned circumstances. The paper seeks to explore the making of womanhood in globalizing India in this context.



Keywords Content

What does it mean to be a woman? The question of defining womanhood has been a complex one, mediated through the centuries of human history by not only the definitions of femininities and masculinities, but also by the intersections of other categories like class, caste, religion, region, age etc. For Indian women, the more intriguing question has been, what does it take to be a woman? Across centuries, all the categorical differences still failed to alter the ideal of the feminine as soft, nurturing, caring, giving; and womanhood being constructed upon similar notions of femininity. However, the ‘intrusion’ of modernity on the lives of women in India offers a different story fraught with confusion and conflict, being dragged over onto the plane of the binaries of tradition and modernity, with all their intrinsic complexities of definitions and interpretations, with myriad implications. More often than not, the binary of tradition and modernity has implied being dragged into the binaries of East and West, equating everything traditional as Eastern, and everything Western as modern. The constructions of East and West have already been the focus of scholarly attention, making amply clear that these categories are dynamic and discursive. Adding to the complexity of defining womanhood in this situation, is the onset of what has been termed as globalisation. The present paper seeks to study the making of Indian womanhood on the interface of tradition, modernity and globalization.

The present era is characterized by the globalization of capital and emergence of free trade. Much has been said and written about the economic and political dimensions of globalisation. However, there is one more significant dimension of globalisation, and that is the globalization of ‘popular culture’. Globalization in the realm of culture is as much fraught with ‘asymmetry’, as it does in the realms of economics and politics. The dramatic rise of the global ‘popular culture’ marks an attempt at the universalization of the culture/s of the dominant nations. The trajectory of this emerging material culture is largely shaped by the market. The spread of the consumptionist culture has resulted in dramatic shifts in the socio-cultural milieu in the local cultures of several nations, and India is no exception to this. The ideological impact of globalization and hegemony of the market has permeated in varying measures the psyche and lifestyle of people belonging to all classes and groups. The consumptionist culture, the revolution in mass media and information technology, the changing mode of entertainment, leisure and lifestyle; have influenced everyone, though in varying degrees; and worked towards altering the lives and life-projects of people. In such a culture, the material has become supreme, commodity has started reigning and ultimately has become the sole determining power. A society is being generated which is confronted by the commodity’s seductive presence at the centre of the material world, and by the commodity’s hegemonic hold over human imagination and desire. With market becoming the predominant force determining the fate of the humanity, identities can now be generated and melted down by the market; they can also be bought and sold in and for the market. A new definition of Indian womanhood is being produced by the market. As a reaction to this new definition of ‘modern Indian womanhood’, fundamentalist forces have opened the front in trying to keep the traditional Indian womanhood alive. Thus, the construction of the ‘new woman’ by modernity seems to be simultaneously attempting at subverting and reviving dominant patriarchal constructions of feminine identity and sexuality. This iconic image of ‘new woman’ is reinforced in a mass-media consumer world. The mass media, which has a deep permeability into people’s psyche, is completely under the dictation of the market. Indian womanhood is thus confronted with multifaceted challenges to her definition, identity and dignity in the wake of aforementioned circumstances. The paper seeks to explore an alternative definition of Indian womanhood.

The Market-defined ‘modern Indian woman’

Indians were introduced to ‘modernity’ for the first time in the context of colonialism. ‘Women’s question’ became central to the cultural and ideological encounter between the ‘modern’ imperialist power and the traditional India in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Modernity in this era provided the impetus for reform within the Hindu religion regarding women’s question. It led to the emergence of a spirit of enquiry, the much-talked about ‘Indian Renaissance’, and at least theoretically helped challenging many outdated social practices associated with Indian womanhood those times like sati, child marriage, ban on widow remarriage, prohibition on women’s education etc. Though the model of modern Indian womanhood presented during this time was by no means comprehensive and free from prejudices, it signified the first attempt towards defining Indian womanhood in terms of a modern thinking. Even today, modernity is needed to challenge oppressive practices and structures regressing Indian womanhood to move beyond subjugated existence.

However, the present times are characterized by an overdose of modernity, or to say more correctly, ‘misplaced modernity’. Two models of Indian womanhood are presented by the market-appropriated modernity in the context of globalization. One is that of the seductive glamorous Indian woman, almost functioning as a ‘commodity’ within the matrix of the market. The second model presents women with purchasing power, the so-called ‘empowered Indian woman’ whose empowerment rests solely on her ability to acquire purchasing power, which means acquiring ‘exchange value’ within a consumptionist society.

Both the models of Indian womanhood, as well as notions of femininity, are being propagated with the help of the most potent instrument in the hands of the market- the mass media. In such a scheme, women start representing the commodity, and commodity starts defining the woman. Models of womanhood are being generated where women are taught to excessively indulge with sex and beauty consciousness/ body consciousness. Images of women with enormous sexual appetite and urge for complete sexual freedom and choice are being promoted by the market. Also, the commodities to be sold are shown to be invested with the same kind of gratification power as sex with a woman. The classic example of this phenomenon is the common use in the consumerist market jargon of the adjective ‘sexy’ and ‘hot’ for anything that pleases the senses. So women and women’s bodies are being used as models for selling anything and everything in the market- from products used by men to those used by women, children or even animals! The media portrayal of women attests to the fact that the commodity under capitalist social conditions can figure both as a representation of and a repository for women’s identity and sexuality. The seductive presence of sensuous woman whets up the society’s increasing appetite for material indulgence. Thus woman becomes an integral part of capitalism’s large theatre of consumption, a commodity itself consumed by the gaze of the fantasizing audience.

However, even this brand of women acquires some ‘exchange value’ in this process which imparts to them the consumer power. With legitimacy being imparted to the Machaevillian assertion that ‘ends justify means’, women in popular media portrayal also seem to celebrate and exploit the consumer power that they are able to exercise in the present world, while recognizing and affirming the way in which that power essentially extends from the commodification of feminine identity and sexuality. Considering women successful in beauty pageants as the empowered women, raises the question if the entire rhetoric of empowerment of women and enhancement of choices is being overtaken by the market. Ironically, the definition of empowered woman includes the one acting as the agent and instrument of globalization. The models and the ‘beauty queens’ represent such brand of modern Indian womanhood. In recent years, the beauty pageants have become explosive flashpoints around questions of gender, sexuality, modernity and development. In the Foucauldian conception of power, the beauty queen embodies bipower in too literal a way to emblematize power, even paradoxiacally as its victim [Foucault, 1978 cited in Hoad, 2004: 59]. It marks this new globalization at the level of a gendered fantasy of consumer-driven lifestyles, in the figure of woman as ideal citizen-consumer and normative sex-object as she shuffles between modernity and post-modernity, and indicates a consolidation of class and racialized standards of beauty [Hoad, 2004: 59]. In fact, some kind of a normative femininity is offered as transnational seduction [Hoad, 2004: 60].

The market is also generating a global model of femininity universalising her inner as well as outer dimensions. The inner dimension of this model of modern Indian woman involves aggression, arrogance or what is called in popular jargon- ‘attitude’, and insatiable desire for all kinds of indulgence (and hence an insatiable urge for acquiring more and more purchasing power). The outer dimensions of this model of femininity prescribes exact proportions for the woman’s body. The generalization of the characteristics of beauty has led to the rise of an entire generation of women nurturing poor self image due to failure in matching the universal model of femininity, and increasingly becoming body-centric. This brand of modern Indian womanhood thrives on its ability to permeate the minds of impressionable Indian women where it generates constant ‘dissatisfaction’, and the consequent frenzy to ‘look beautiful’. The bodily appetite of sex and the urge to look ‘sexiest’ is overshadowing all the finer faculties of the human mind that women are actually well-endowed with. In fact, it is a kind of animality women are being thrown into as it is only the finer faculties of human mind that distinguish humans from animals who as much perform the bodily functions as humans. Indian women need to discard their definitions as objects or in the form of animal existence. Also, generalized models of beauty present unachievable targets for women, and breeds constant dissatisfaction with their bodies in them. This dissatisfaction is important for the market, as only a dissatisfied woman can purchase more and more, more and more of fairness creams, height increasing products, slimming products, hair care products etc. The entire cosmetics industry and also the new ‘slimming industry’ thrive on this dissatisfaction bred into this generation of women. Bennett writes: ‘Accelerated production could only deliver greater profits and growth if it were matched by accelerated consumption. For some products, this could be achieved by increasing the pace of product deterioration, thus shortening replacement time; but for most products and services it could only be brought about by engendering a perpetual state of dissatisfaction in the psyche of the consumer. The gratification yielded by one consumption experience had to give way in the shortest possible time to the desire for another. Indeed, the ideal consumer would forego satisfaction altogether- and desire only desire’ [Bennett, 2001: 61). Beauty pageants are a part and parcel of this process.

While the models of womanhood and femininity have not yet completely succeeded in overpowering the intellect of Indian women, the predominance of the market and material culture has made images of girls and women wearing and using ‘branded’ clothes and apparels in order to look the new ‘smart’ girl/ woman commonplace. Also, this new Indian woman prefers eating in McDonalds or Pizza Hut, use the latest technological equipments, and also apes ‘globalized’ way of thinking and behaviour (e.g. possessing ‘attitude’). Again, characteristically she is as arrogant and proud of her so-called material accomplishments, as misplaced modernity itself. To borrow Dipanakar Gupta’s terminology, the new Indian woman is ‘Westoxicated’ [Gupta: 2000]. Gupta defines Westoxication as superficial consumerist display of commodities and fads produced in the West.

The commodification of women at the hands of the market is challenged by the Feminists worldwide. However, the same Feminists have been advocating excessive sexual freedom for women. It is to be admitted that there exists no parallel between the two phenomenon. Also, this is not to undermine the importance of women’s freedom to choose. However, again, everything gets distorted when practised beyond a certain measure. Promoting excessive sexual freedom may bring disastrous results for humanity just the way portrayal of women as sex objects can. The question demands some serious thinking. Is sexual freedom tantamount to women’s emancipation or empowerment? Does female agency find expression truly on being overwhelmingly translated in sexual terms? Seen solely on the physical plane, the right to choice and freedom cannot be denied. But human beings are not merely physical beings. They are also emotional, mental and spiritual beings. Again, they are also social beings having social identities beyond an atomistic individual existence. This fact cannot be overlooked while dealing with any question related to human life. Sexual freedom may be advocated if sex merely remains a physical act. However, even if the West denies it to be a spiritual act, even they have to acquiesce in the emotional and mental bearing of the act. Excessive indulgence leads to emotional and mental deterioration, is a fact recognized by Western psychology itself. Further, Indian philosophy rightly points towards spiritual degradation of an individual as a consequence of sexual excess. As Kapoor rightly comments, “Sex is an appetite; and its gratification, like that of other appetites such as hunger, has to be regulated as is required by the general philosophy of self-imposed restraint and abstemiousness (sanyama).” [Kapoor, 2002: 34]. Equally important is the fact that excessive sexual freedom has significant social implications. Kapoor further writes, “But we may note, quite unlike other appetites, its gratification has social, beyond-the-individual consequences. Therefore, apart from the merely personal, there is the need for its social regulation.” [Kapoor, 2002: 34. Excessive sexual freedom may actually result in women and men being identified as sex objects more than as mental, emotional or spiritual beings. This stands truer in case of women, whose identity may, as Kapoor comments, be reduced to the existence as a “Baby-doll with the Marilyn Monroe image” [Kapoor, 2002: 32].

The second model is that represented by the ‘smart’ ‘professional’ woman who has purchasing power. Portrayal of these women in the media as better clad than their ‘commodified’ counterparts, gives a subsumed admission of the fact that this brand of women do not need to ‘expose’ as they already have an ‘exchange value’, and are not dependent on using their sexuality to acquire such an exchange value in a consumptionist world. However, does the purchasing power of this new modern woman, prevent her from falling a prey to the commodity market, is a query. This brand of womanhood is said to represent the ‘empowered woman’. This empowerment emanates from her wielding choices arising out of her financial status. However, few things need consideration regarding the rhetoric of choice in a consumption-oriented cultural setting. It is said that modernity gives us the choice: the freedom to select from diverse possibilities. In this sense it may also be seen as ‘imparting some agency’. However, does consumption really a human activity rife with agency? Women need to understand that there is a limitation to these ‘diverse possibilities’ themselves. In the contemporary society, these diverse possibilities are generated by and for the market. Also, our choice is being constantly conditioned by the agents of capitalism and consumerism- the mass media. So we no more have the choice given by modernity (i.e. criticality of our own consciousness), but we have choice given to us by the commodity Market. Is such a choice, real choice? Choice and ‘diverse possibilities’, being hijacked by the market forces, no more remain choice and possibilities. In fact, choice cannot be given or taken, it is within oneself. Indian women have this critical agency inside themselves, the ability to choose what is given or reject it. They need to ‘choose’ to reject the false choice given by the market, to opt out of it, and thus ‘choose’ to reject the enslavement of their minds and spirits at the hands of the commodity market. However, such an opting out of the conditioning of the market, should in no way inhibit women to choose the other possibilities generated by the spirit of innovation and experimentation, which ‘expands one’s horizons and perpetually transforms the world around us’ (e.g. the experimentations in the field of art, music, academics and even dress and mannerisms).

This brand of ‘modern Indian womanhood’ is as aggressive, arrogant, proud of its achievements, and most importantly, excessively desirous, as its previous counterpart. In fact, a new definition is being imparted to modernity itself. Another feature of both of these brands of Indian womanhood is exaggerated individualism.

Rise of Fundamentalist forces: Re-inventing the ‘traditional Indian womanhood’

One response to the commodification of womanhood, Westoxication of Indian women, and rise of Feminist consciousness alike, is the protest by fundamentalist groups. To fundamentalists, women symbolize ethnic and cultural purity and so their sexuality is to be guarded. To them, thus, also the ‘naked show’ of sexuality in beauty pageants is reprehensible, and hence the protests of the beauty pageants. However, in the name of protecting ‘Indian culture’ from the inroads of ‘alien sexualities’, the stereotype of the suppressed and submissive woman is reinforced by fundamentalists. They wish to retain the traditional Indian womanhood and are resentful towards any changes. The model of the ever self-effacing, self-sacrificing, muted, submissive Indian woman in roles of wife, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law etc. is being reinforced. The fundamentalists have even resented the blurring of the ‘private-public divide’ and challenged the notion of modern Indian womanhood for everything- good or bad. The Mahila Morcha writes, for example:

“We conceptually differ from what is termed as the women’s liberation movement in the west. We require a sort of readjustment in the social and economic set-up. No fundamental change in the values is desirable. Women in India ever had a proud place within the household, and the society. That has only to be re-affirmed” [Mahila Morcha, 1991: 20].

Indian womanhood suffers a threat from the trap of these hardliners. Modernity has to be used adequately to reject whatever got stale in tradition. It is also interesting that the fundamentalist forces reproduce and use religion in their own suitable forms. In case of Hinduism, for instance, within its vast conglomeration of practices and beliefs, provides ample scope for rather egalitarian definitions of womanhood and manhood. For example, the Vedantic traditions consider qualities such as masculinity and femininity as relative to the perceived world, which in itself is unreal [Poonacha, 1993: 439].

Role of mass media in popularising these images

The predominance of the logic of the market has made self-interest permeate each and every aspect of human existence. Mass media has become a tool in the hands of the market. As already discussed, market is attempting at using Indian women as commodities as well as a brand of consumers which has universal tastes and preferences and which is governed by insatiable desire. In a bid to promote its ulterior motives, market is using sexuality of women by semi-nude portrayals of women. Second, to create a band of consumers, market is portraying the new woman with purchasing power. Thirdly, the market is also shaking hands with the fundamentalists in portraying the stereotypical traditional Indian womanhood. The Indian television soaps regularly portray Indian woman as the stereotypical homemaker in the traditional roles of daughter-in-law and wife. This is an attempt made by profit seeking production houses guided by the values and practices of materialism aimed at unbridled profit making, who know how to exploit the resentment among certain sections of the Indian society towards the generation of the new image of Indian womanhood. Also, for those women who are right now moulded in the traditional submissive cast, the ‘break’ for advertisements every three minutes, provides an opening of an entire new attractive sexually charged world of desire. The senses of women are invaded constantly by the ‘ubiquitous lure of goods’ [Chakravarty, 2000: WS-13]. This is also helpful in furthering the profit motive of the market. Mass media is also working towards giving rise to ‘dissatisfaction’ and insatiability of desire amongst the Indian women. Given the popularity of television, it is a dangerous portent for Indian women. Indian women need to present collective resistance to such media portrayals of women.

Indian womanhood is facing challenges from the conservatives and progressives alike. Indian womanhood is confronted with multifaceted violence done to its definition, identity and dignity in the wake of aforementioned circumstances. Caught in the clutches of (misplaced) modernity, globalization, market and fundamentalist forces, the true Indian womanhood is awaiting newer definitions.

If modernity in its present form is circumscribing Indian womanhood into the servitude of the market, should modernity be given up? In fact, it is this that the Fundamentalists are attempting at. Then what about the subjugation of Indian women in traditional roles? The answer has to be located somewhere in between. What is imperative is to understand the true spirit of modernity. What Indian women have to borrow from modernity is its inherent optimism, spirit of enquiry and exploration, critical consciousness, innovation and experimentation; its intense dynamism, and urge for freedom and agency. Yet they may have to impart newer meanings and definitions to modernity’s definitions of progress and freedom. Indian women may seek to harness the liberating potential of certain core values of modernity; rather than becoming slaves at the hands of modernity hijacked by capitalism and consumerism.

As Habermas said, the answer lies not in an escape from modernity. The answer is to unfold the potential of modernity [cf. Pathak, 2006: 20]. The answer may, thus be, to unfold the potential of modernity by rejecting everything that is ‘falsely modern’, and then use this potential to ameliorate globalisation from the clutches of fierce and blatant Capitalism and consumerism. “Modernity does not mean well-fed/ well-clothed individuals- politically indifferent and culturally insensitive- living in their own little worlds. As Habermas reminds us, it should mean a vibrant public sphere in which people participate and reflect on the world” [cf. Pathak, 2006: 20]. Applying this to define ‘modern woman’, means that a woman who eats Mcdonald’s burger, wears Pepe jeans is not essentially modern. To extend this discussion, even a woman who is a software engineer sitting with a laptop in a restaurant is not modern in the true sense of the term. Such an image is ‘evocatively depicted in the saucy mobile phone ad where a glamorous but completely confident single woman in an expensive restaurant puts a sophisticated executive type in his place by apparently mistaking him for a waiter’ [Chakravarty, 2000: WS-13). And if globalisation freed from the definition of being globalisation of capitalism and Western way of living, such a woman is not also the new ‘global woman’. A truly modern Indian woman would be the one conscious of and exhibiting her critical agency, knowing well what to reject and what to accept. Purchasing power does not make a woman modern or global. By rejecting such a definition of womanhood, women would reject the resolving of their personal worth into mere exchange value, and thus, also reject the ascription of a commodity status to them. Indian women need to free modernity and globalisation from the hegemony of Capitalism and consumerism and use them as forces of universal harmony, peaceful co-existence and evolution of the humanity.

Precisely, Indian women need to define and determine their position within the matrix of the asymmetric globalization in a way so as to resist the dominant centres of global power from deciding the nature, mode and course of cultural exchange. The positive potential of globalization to generate ‘cross-cultural conversation and an open inclusive culture cannot be unfolded unless we resist the asymmetry of globalization. Resistance to globalization and dominance of the market is presented by the fundamentalist forces. Fundamentalism insulates and insulation implies total restriction of both, permeability and expansion. Thus it restricts evolution and growth. Thus, instead of sticking to a ‘puritan’ notion of culture, there is a need to engage with experimentations, hybridization and new forms of synthesis. In this way fundamentalism presents a challenge to Indian womanhood. Indian women have to resist globalization of the dominance of market in a way that it takes us to a better world. Globalization cannot be sustainably countered with a conservative or closed mindset. It is important to retain the dialogic and innovative spirit. Indian woman, rejecting the model of aggressively material-oriented, arrogant, self-centred identity, may choose to become more humble, dialogic, inclusive, adaptable, harmonious and creative.

NOTES

1.The Miss World contest of 1996, held in Bangalore incited widespread protests both from fundamentalists as well as feminists.

REFERENCES

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