Deconstructing Sexuality as an Indian Woman

“I didn’t learn to be quiet when I had an opinion. The reason they knew who I was is because I told them” – Ursula Burns

My life has been full of events where I have been objectified and sexualized for who people see me as, a woman. These experiences that range from catcalling to outright sexual, mental and emotional harassment align with those of many women–who have felt the staring gazes of males as if we were objects to be adorned. Somehow, it was justified for women to be subjected to the microscopic male ogling. However, my experiences are also culturally distinct for I have faced the post-colonial impacts of sexualization and oppression that have plagued India for ages. One such impact of colonization on gender and sex is depicted in my mother’s statement in asking me, “What’s happened to your skin? It looks so dark.” My mother’s comment is not surprising in a world recovering from colonial burns, where standards of beauty are equated and reinforced by beauty magazines and advertisements. In these standards, the white western skin is considered beautiful and superior and dark or brown-skin inferior. My identity is further complicated by my existence in a country, the United States of America, where I aspire to be an immigrant science education teacher-scholar working on issues of social and racial injustices. In this blog post, I explore how my culturally distinct experiences as an Indian woman in the US speak to the sexualization of the female Indian body that gives weight to a culture of gender and racial oppression.

I think society defines being a woman as someone who fits into a view that aligns with the normative ways of thinking about gender, race, class,  and western construction of a woman, that is based in a prejudiced objectification of how a woman is supposed to look. Fair-skinned, sharp-featured, blue-eyed…you get the idea! In addition, behavioral attributes related to feelings and emotions like empathy, intimacy, and sensitivity have also been associated with the term “femininity” and with being a woman. This socio-normative western understanding of a woman, in effect, ignores the fact that some women may or may not identify themselves with their given gender or may not associate themselves to these normative attributes. Hence, this view marginalizes women who identify themselves as Lesbians/Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, and Queer (LGBTQ) and it marginalizes me as a queer non-conforming woman.

To understand femininity, we also need to consider how the society views males. The western view of males has been associated with the physical and emotional strength (the narrative of showing no emotions), assertiveness, confidence, and financial independence. These attributes are associated with the term “masculinity” or with being a male–placing all men in a silo of expectations that have social repercussions. But, these normative definitions and the explications that follow are also intricate to understanding why and how being fit into the monolithic definition of an Indian woman needs to be re-defined.

A question that usually arises when we talk about the oppression of women is seeking the historical underpinnings behind women’s objectification. Historically, the objectification of women was not a culmination of some random events that came about but rather a gradual and sustained power play by generations of men who have viewed and believed that women are socially and biologically beneath them (a view that permeates the boundaries of most cultures). In this case, an essential feature of male power is considered the ability to exert control and influence over a woman. This is certainly one way that males have always obtained and displayed their power. However, it can often be difficult to understand how and where this male display of power manifests itself. Male dominance can often be implicit and most difficult to be perceived by males as an oppressive action. There are multiple spaces where the manifestation of male dominance is visible. It permeates the boundaries of home, work, education, different disciplines, and every social space. For instance, in my family when making big decisions my grandfather’s words (not my grandmothers’) always governed the final decisions. If he felt we shouldn’t do X then we didn’t do X. Now my father carries on this patriarchal role.

Women, in contrast, have been defined by their socio-normative role of being caretakers (mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and so on). Their function in the society as caretakers stems from the “traditional role obligations [that had been] centered around marriage and childbearing” (Wolf & Fligstein, 1979). Hence, their commitments to paid employment have been viewed as secondary to these traditional role obligations. The traditional role obligations continue to dictate the lives of many women even today.

The situation is not all grim. There are individuals, men and women alike, who realize that as social contexts change this “normative” and “binary” view of women and men also needs to change (Gunckel, 2009). As Nair (1994) puts it:

“the question of female agency in history, whether that agency takes the form of consent, transgression, or subversion, can neither be wholly contained within a delineation of structures of oppression nor exhausted by accounts of female presence in history, but must be posed within specific contexts and placed along a continuum where various forms of agency may coexist.”

Nair’s description above is emblematic of the oppression of women in India and pushes us to situate gender oppression as a socially and culturally fluid construct. As a byproduct of colonization, Nair’s statement urges me to reconsider how a monolithic meaning of being an Indian woman needs to be re-considered and deconstructed within today’s socially dynamic and global context. It also forces me to reflect on the history of the colonized women in India and how our colonial past has contributed to the creation of this monolithic meaning of the Indian woman today.

Sexism and Colonization – The Indian Context

Present day sexism in India is an outcome of years of colonization and western patriarchal and religious views invading alongside their respective civilizations, and the attempts to educate and “civilize”. This means to be considered as a civilized community you need to follow certain rules and norms – eat with a fork and knife, wear western clothes, speak English, and so forth. The ripples of these views are still visible through the damage made during the colonization. For the western colonizers who ruled India, this view included but was not limited to fairness or whiteness of the skin being considered superior to the darkness of the skin. White women and men being considered higher in hierarchy and power, and factors associated with it such the language English considered as necessary and again a sign of superiority if someone could fluently communicate in English. The fair skin rule particularly holds true for women in India today. Fair-skinned women usually get preference over their dark-skinned counterparts at work, in education, and at home. For example, during a campus job placement, I was selected for a marketing job over my other more qualified sisters for I was comparatively fair-skinned. Fair-skinned women in India also experience privilege in relationships, and in both love and arranged marriage. Men prefer women who have fair skin continuing the western notions of equating fairness with beauty. This colorist view has been perpetuated by women and men alike. It is a form of discrimination overlapping with racist beauty standards in the west. , What is devastating is that this sexist-colorist culture did not always exist in India.

The pre-colonial and mythical counterparts of the present-day women in India were treated equally and in some social groups given priority over men (Jaiswal, 1981). Women in pre-colonial India were also viewed as the epitome of power in certain social groups. Religion and idol worship in India depicts the prominent role women played in the Indian society. Idol worship of Goddesses is indicative of either inherent reverence for female power or of a belief in the divine being feminine. Core forces in the human condition, such as conquest, good and evil, wealth, and knowledge are all considered feminine, represented through Goddesses like Durga (the all-conquering), Kali (the Vanquisher of evil), Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth), and Saraswati (Goddess of Learning).

Although these interpretations are still contested among philosophers and anthropologists, contrasting the present status of women (as described above) in India to their pre-colonial and mythical counterparts depicts how colonization has been detrimental and damaging to the progress of women in India. Herein, it is important to consider views of scholars like Janaki Nair and historians like Suvira Jaiswal who imply that the lives of Indian women have been traditionally governed by historical, political, and socio-economic factors that have molded and altered drastically the Indian society through ages. Hence, to present a monolithic picture of women in India is impossible and untrue to the different identities of caste, class, region, religion, and gender into which a woman in India is born. Even as women in India carry these complex identities with them, one fact that mostly all philosophers and anthropologists agree on is the point of origin of women’s present deteriorated status in India. They trace back and attribute the degeneration of the position of women in India to colonial impacts of the many dynasties who ruled India from the early modern period rulers like the Mughals and European exploration of India to the modern period colonial government rule by the British (Ramaswamy, 2016). The aftermath of these colonial impacts still haunts the present day Indian women as during the colonial times women in India were anything but the point of consideration when political, social, and cultural changes were taking place (Nair, 1994).

The monolithic and binary views through which cultures across the world define the Indian woman result in associating certain stereotypical and misconceived notions to LGBTQ, multilingual, women of color from culturally dynamic countries like India. For example, as an Indian woman living in the United States, a question that I have become exceedingly familiar with is, “Where are you from? I ask because you are fair.” I think individuals who use these phrasings do so with the understanding that they may be complimenting me. What they forget are the racist connotations that such a question may carry. They forget that such a question refers to a monolithic, colorist, and discriminatory view of people from India (women and men both) that belittles elements that are other people’s identities. This question is disturbing not only because it holds the Indian woman to unrealistic, biased western white beauty standards but more so because it presents before the world a troublesome narrative of the Indian woman (and women of color) as desiring the white skin, and thereby accepting its superiority. It reinforces notions of beauty that are untrue to the identities of women in and from India. This rhetoric is also damaging for young women and girls who from a very young age start believing that to be beautiful is to be white.

As a woman and as an educator, my sole aim is to push against and change these monolithic perceptions of beauty that society forces upon a young girl, who carries it with her all her life. Hence, I take upon myself the responsibility to be the part of a change in this rhetoric. I do so through my research, teaching, and service because right now this is what I can do the best. But my work will be incomplete if other people do not contribute their voices to these conversations, particularly those people who have been silenced and whose voices unheard for ages. We need to understand the perspectives of thousands of girls and women whose voices were lost in the void. We need to consider transnational experiences of women who are still struggling in nations engulfed and buried in war. We need to study far and wide before we can create a more just and equitable society. And to create a just society, to bring a change, we need to be the agents of change.

P.S. This blog is part of a series of blog posts where I will further explore the intersectionality of race and gender as I situate it within science education

References:

Gunckel, K. L. (2009). Queering science for all: Probing queer theory in science education. JCT (Online), 25(2), 62.

Jaiswal, S. (1981, January). Women in Early India: Problems and Perspectives. In Proceedings of the Indian History Congress (Vol. 42, pp. 54-60). Indian History Congress.

Nair, J. (1994). On the question of agency in Indian feminist historiography. Gender & History, 6(1), 82-100.

Washington, H. A. (2006). Medical apartheid: The dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present. Doubleday Books.

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