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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 18, April 18, 2009

Reinforcing New Stereotypes

Saturday 18 April 2009, by Kumkum Roy

Book Review

Zealous Reformers, Deadly Laws: Battling Stereotypes by Madhu Purnima Kishwar; Sage Publications, New Delhi; pp. 420; Price: Rs 495.

Madhu Kishwar is someone who has been zealously campaigning for decades, championing a range of causes with remarkable energy and determination. Most of us, who have been or are in some way associated with the women‘s movement, have had the opportunity to interact with her, listen to her, and read her. This volume captures her arguments, opinions and ideas with clarity and lucidity. This is in itself valuable, as it allows the reader to understand and agree or disagree with the author. This dialogue would not have been possible if Kishwar‘s style was more abstruse, as is often the case with writings on such themes.

Consisting of an anthology of nineteen essays written over several years, the volume is organised into four sections, dealing with stereotypes, domestic violence, inheritance and politics and organisational matters respectively. As a student of history, I found the chronology intriguing—the essays are arranged not in the order in which they were written, but according to some other, unstated framework. As the underlying logic remains obscure, one wonders at the sequence. Take, for instance, the section on stereotypes—this begins with an article on the Manusmriti and a hypotehtical Madhusmriti (written in 2000), followed by one on an incident of sati (1999), a scathing review of Deepa Mehta‘s Fire (1998), an essay on role models within the Hindu tradition (2006), a discussion on ethnographic strategies (1990), dowry (1986) and censorship (1996). This blurring of chronology means that the reader has to figure out for herself/himself how, why and when Kishwar chose to adopt different strategies, or even frames of reference. While the author explains her positions lucidly at a number of points, it would have been useful if these flowed through more consistenly.

There is a set of two or three interrelated concerns that runs through these essays. The first is a deep suspicion and mistrust of legal redress as a means of addressing issues of conflict in general and gendered conflicts in particular. Related to this is a valorisation of an entity that is described as the community, which is regarded as the ideal unit for handling such issues. And associated with this is a celebration of what is sometimes identified as Hindu, occasionally slipping into the category of Indian, which is juxtaposed against a projected ‘other’, in this case a somewhat flat representation of Western civilisation. It may be worth examining how these ideas are developed and elucidated.

At one level, Kishwar‘s wary approach to the law may seem justified in terms of the experiential problems one counters—the inordinate delays, possibilities of miscarriage of justice, and the complicated, expensive legal mechanisms that are well beyond the reach of ordinary women and men. Many of these problems, as Kishwar and others have pointed out, are related to flawed structures. However, while effectively documenting these near-insurmountable difficulties that make the law virtually inaccessible, Kishwar moves beyond these critiques in several directions.

For one, she argues that taking recourse to the law is an erroneous strategy—apart from its wearying complexities, it can be misused by an over-enthusiastic state as well as by activists. She also argues that recourse to the law can be counter-productive. All of these suggestions are plausible, and, under certain circumstances, true. However, it is equally true that women and men have fought and won long-drawn legal battles with admirable courage and determination, setting precedents that can then shape legal praxis. To cite just one instance, we may recollect the successful defence of those who were held responsible for the terrorist attack on Parliament, remarkable in the face of the media hysteria that was whipped up on the occasion. Therefore, to argue on the basis of some spectacular, sad failures that legal advocacy is unwarranted or unncessary seems to be overstating the case: instead of denouncing those who opt for such strategies as misguided, Westernised, short-sighted people, it may be worthwhile to work out a range of strategies that can succeed. In other words, while it is plausible and even true that laws can and are misused, we need to work towards more complex resolutions than simply denouncing the law or those who take recourse to it.

This attitude of almost unqualified suspicion towards legal remedies leads to baffling statements. For instance, we read (p. 13):

For example, ever since dowry was made illegal in 1961 through the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, the practice has flourished in an unprecedented manner among all strata of people.

This seems to hint at an almost casual link between the passage of the Act and the spread of the practice: most of us would search for more complex reasons (some suggested by Kishwar elsewhere in the text) for understanding the practice and its prevalence. Such somewhat facile, polemical statements detract from Kishwar’s otherwise incisive critique of the implementation of the laws pertaining to sati, dowry, and domestic violence.

If the law is viewed with suspicion, an entity called the community is romanticised, especially in the chronologically later articles. In fact, it is here that one can locate an unstated and unmarked shift in Kishwar’s stance over the years. One can compare in this context some of the earliest interventions, which figure in section 3, discussing questions of women’s inheritance, where the community is represented as fractured, stratified and as a potential and actual site of conflict. These writings date to 1987 and 1990 respectively. This presents a sharp contrast with the valorisation of the community in Kishwar’s later writings.

Some of these ideas are spelt out in the introduction, where, for instance, the notion of partnership with communities is held out as a possibility (for example, p. 21). This leads to a valorisation of the notion of izzat or honour (for example, p. 31), a troublesome resolution in situations where women (and men) are routinely killed when their actions are seen as compromising this ideal of honour, in situations where any autonomous expressions of sexual identity are perceived as threats to the community. As an adjunct of this notion, we find a somewhat romantic portrayal of the pre-colonial family as a unit within which the head of the family supposedly acted as a trustee for the other inhabitants of the household. This representation has little to do with serious historical research. In fact, Kishwar ignores decades of historical research that have complicated our understanding of the past. At present, most historians would be reluctant to accept the picture of unilinear decline that was portrayed by scholars such as Altekar, and would attempt to come to terms with the complexities of kinship networks, embedded in the specificities of region, caste, class and community. However, there is little or no space for these nuances in the way in which Kishwar delineates her understanding of the community—the concerns of upper-caste Hindus of north India are universalised with astonishing ease. We are told, for instance, that Lakshmi is the Indian goddess of wealth (p. 47). What, one wonders, of the minorities, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, apart from tribal populations, who do not worship this particular goddess, and of the Hindus of other sectarian persuasions, who need not necessarily worship Lakshmi?

The understanding of the community also results in bewildering formulations. The violence to which Bhanwari Devi was subjected, for instance, is understood by Kishwar as a backlash against attempts to stop child marriages. Thus, violence unleashed by self-proclaimed represen-tatives of the community is explained away as a ‘response’ or ‘reaction’ to attempts to change existing social practices. Clearly, Bhanwari Devi was not part of a well-knit community within which everyone knows her/his place (p. 63).


Given this perspective, it is not surprising that for Kishwar, the panacea to most situations of conflict lies in mobilising opinion within the community. While this is certainly a valid strategy, we need to recognise that just as in the case of the legal options that Kishwar warns against, negotiating with the community cannot always lead to success. In one of the instances that she cites at length, that of allocating land to women by men within the movement led by Sharad Joshi in Maharashtra, we learn that men were more excited about this gesture than women. We are not told why the women were less taken in. Was it because the gains were more symbolic than real? We also learn nothing about the proportions of land transferred in terms of the total holdings, and the fate of these allocations once the momentum of the movement petered out.

It is also a pity that in her war against stereotypes, Kishwar ends up creating and reinforcing a set of her own. Some of these are about the ways in which feminist historians represent Indian history. We stand accused, in this context, of portraying five thousand years of unalloyed misery. Such statements in the introduction (p. 53) completely ignore the complex, painstaking investigations into the past that have been undertaken by feminist scholars, and the multiple ways in which these have been presented—far beyond the black-and-white categories with which Kishwar operates.

To cite just one example: Kishwar’s under-standing of the Manusmriti is simplistic, and she chooses to cite the text selectively. This in a sense would not have been problematic if the sections that she ignores had little or nothing to say on the issues that she raises. But, while citing the provisions of the text that state that women ought to be honoured, she does not let the reader know that this is in the context of ensuring procreation within the ideal patrilineal and patriarchal household. Similarly, the claims to divine origin for the text, stated explicitly at the outset, are ignored. To state that the Manusmriti did not claim divine authority (p. 81), as Kishwar does, misre-presents the letter and the spirit of the text. While Manu-bashing may be a limited strategy as far as present-day feminist agendas are concerned, it is important to acknowledge what the text says, even if it does not match up to our expectations and ideals.

There is also, at least occasionally, a communal edge to the version of history that is presented. We learn (p. 83) that “throughout the past thousand years, this subcontinent witnessed a series of invasions”. In case one thinks this is an isolated instance, consider the following statement (p. 94): “Those who have tried to cure us of polytheism and become subservient to the dictates of monotheistic faiths have inflicted a great deal of violence on our people throughout this millennium.” What, one wonders, was the history before this apparently dismal period? Were there no political or religious contestations prior to that?

There are also silences that are troubling. Although written in the decades that have witnessed some of the worst communal violence, including the demolition of the Babri Masjid, mobilisations on environmental issues such as the Narmada and new political formations thrown up in the post-Mandal era, the ways in which these have impinged on the lives of women (and men) finds no reflection in this anthology. There are also traces of homophobia, and an anxiety to distance bonds, physical, emotional and social, between women from the label of lesbianism (p. 113). Also, there are intriguing attacks on what is perceived as the West, represented by figures such as Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe, and on those who are regarded as being swayed by the fates of these women. Once again, just as India is more complex than a homogeneous community, so also is ‘the West’. But these complexities are not allowed to complicate the pictures that Kishwar paints—in black and white, denying us access to shades of grey.

Finally, while Kishwar critiques the Bill reserving seats for women in Parliament, as well as the handful of women parliamentarians, she has little or nothing to say about the experiment with reservations in panchayats, which has worked in various ways, more or less successfully, in different parts of the country. Thus, the grassroots experience, which perhaps defies straitjacketing and stereotyping, remains unexplored. This is a pity, because Kishwar’s skills of communication and passion are beyond dispute. We would have benefited considerably if she had used these to explore and present perspectives on these developments that will perhaps shape our futures.

The reviewer is a Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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