The anxiety of the Bengali bhadralok and the modern woman: Why does the body matter?

Guest Post by PANCHALI RAY

A few months back, an impressive essay in one of the leading newspapers cited macro data to argue that the rapid decline of women’s labour force participation stemmed from their disproportionate household responsibilities. Widely shared on social media, intellectuals and activists lamented Indian men’s lack of participation in social reproduction and care work, which compelled women to drop out of the labour market. However, gender blind methodology or macro scale data collection often leads to ironing out of nuances. Thus, what the authors missed (or the data collectors), was patriarchy in the public sphere, which more often than not, pushed women back into their homes: lack of opportunities and occupational mobility, gender-based occupational segregation, gender wage gap, lack of infrastructure (access to creche, toilets), sexual harassment, and the incredible policing of women’s bodies and lives.

Nothing proves this  more than the recent case of a professor being forced to resign from a premium university in Kolkata over bikini-clad photos she posted on her private Instagram account. The matter came to head, allegedly, when a parent caught his son (a student) going through her photographs. Instead of teaching his ward age and gender-appropriate behaviour, he decided to fall back on classic patriarchy— blame the woman. He wrote in his complaint to the university that “It is obscene, vulgar and improper for a 18 year old student to see his professor dressed in scanty clothes exhibiting her body on a public platform.” For sending a legal notice to access a copy of the complaint, the professor has been asked to pay a fine of  99 crores. A clear warning to all women, to never take to task institutions and their male guardians: to obey, to yield but never to question.

While many expressed outrage at this incredible misogyny, policing women’s bodies, particularly those in certain kinds of service work (nurses, teachers, social workers, therapists) has always been central to preserving culture and social order. Clothes are never just an apparel: they are signifiers of desirability, of sexuality, of the owner’s sense of self, and most importantly, of ‘taste’. Thus, an air hostess wearing a short skirt as her uniform is anticipated, a teacher wearing it privately, is censured. The differential treatment of women in public employment speaks to a larger debate on labour: while the affective labour of an air hostess is constructed as servile and sexual, the intellectual and affective labour of those who serve in schools and universities is at the heart of reproducing and sustaining gender and caste based social order.

Bengal, often hailed as the intellectual nerve of the country, and celebrated for its contempt for crass capitalism and consumerism,  has a long history of anxiety over women’s sexuality. The social reform movement of the 19th century constructed the ‘new woman’ or the bhadramahila (respectable woman) as one who performed emotive labour and served the family (and nation). Women’s education (particularly English education), therefore, prepared middle-class, upper-caste women to enter into the ideal companionate marriage, however, conservatives needed reassurance of women upholding traditional cultural practices which preserved the family and did not question existing gender relations. The backlash that followed was predictable: sparked by the introduction of print technology, popular, low-brow, vernacular literature mounted a defence of traditional gender and caste relations, reserving their scathing satirical commentary for the ‘new woman’. Kaliyuga became synonymous with colonial modernization that enabled women to transgress caste and gender norms. Naturally, it was the middle-class, upper-caste Hindu female body that was at the apex of this tension, the Dalit woman was obliterated from this discursive representation.

Cut to the 20th century, Bengal has always had a low participation rate of women in the labour force, particularly in Calcutta, and with increasing masculinization of almost all sectors, even those numerically few women who laboured were pushed out of the formal sector and into precarious jobs, mostly domestic service. On top of that, the city witnessed economic catastrophe of world wars, famine, decolonization, deindustrialization, rapid urbanization, and the partition which in turn compelled genteel but destitute women to seek employment. Thus, the city witnessed hitherto immobile (middle-class, upper-caste) women entering the labour market, leading to patriarchal paranoia that female autonomy would soon destabilize the existing social order leading to corruption and degeneration of Bengali society.

This spectre of the transgressive woman continues to haunt the progressive bhadralok. For instance, the celebrated director Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi has as its centre, Siddhartha, an educated, unemployed man caught between the two contradictory forces of revolutionary politics (represented by his brother) and corporate success (as embodied by his sister). The film explores the tension between beleaguered masculinity and assertive, transgressive femininity. The intellectual, escapist Siddhartha is unable to come to terms with the moral decadence of the city and his socially mobile sister, Sutapa, on whose earnings the family survives: Sutapa comes home late regularly and offers no explanation, attends western dancing classes in the evening, and contemplates modelling and nonchalantly brushes off rumours of her affair with her married employer. Her brazen behaviour questions the ‘new’ femininity that stretched itself to absorb middle-class women who apologetically worked outside the home in face of financial distress, but carefully tended to and maintained middle-class gendered ideologies.  Sutapa, coming from a respectable Bengali family exacerbates the patriarchal tension that occurs when economic independence opens up spaces for autonomy and female agency that call into question the demarcation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ woman, licit and illicit sexual behaviour.

For that matter, another of Ray’s celebrated film Mahanagar, where the protagonist, Arati Mazumdar, a genteel but poor housewife, must find employment to help support her family foregrounds societal apprehension regarding changing gender norms. Arati fits into the trope of the  ‘new woman’: traditional yet modern, empowered yet conforming to all gender norms, placating her husband’s growing anxiety over her perceived transgressions. This included a curtailing of her desires: desires that purportedly reflected aspirations of a materialistic and westernized woman— one who would abandon her duties to home, family, and the nation.

With liberalization, the tussle between ‘old’ and ‘new’ constructions of womanhood in rapidly changing India, meant that the ‘new Indian woman’ was being constantly redefined, thus, leading to a continuous interplay between submission and contestation of gender norms. In this tussle the embodied experience of being a (middle-class, upper-caste, urban) woman is constituted by both contemporary and liberating aspects of everyday life, often triggered by education processes and media culture as well as continuous reminders and censure of gender, caste and class appropriate behaviour.  Images and representations of the ‘new’ woman with traces of the ‘old’, i.e educated, ambitious, financially independent, and yet, conscious of and attentive towards middle-class respectability continue to be circulated in television serials, advertisements, and films.

The question of labour is not very far behind: teaching, like social work/service is respectable labour, to be offered by women who inhabit middle-class, upper-caste norms. Teaching is affective labour, one that is central to producing good citizens and this labour can only be offered by those who come from the highest social rank—upper-caste men. If women wish to enter spaces of knowledge-production, they must leave the corporeal, the feminine behind. The constitution of the body as stigmatized, incapable of intellectual labour, and synonymous to nature, as opposed to culture and modernity, is central to the devaluation of women’s bodies and their labour. Women’s employment has almost always been interlinked with sexual control, violence, and honour; and working women almost always marked as carnal, promiscuous, and sexually available. Thus, to fit into the rarefied field of male intellect, the corporeal, the sexual must be repressed. Of course, male carnality as evidenced by male professors entering into sexual liaisons with young female students rampant in our universities have never invited similar censure. After all male intellect comes with entitlements!

The development of class and of class distinctions, which has caste and sexuality equally embedded in them, draws much of its strength from cultural as well as social capital. A woman teacher must be a bhadramahila (a respectable woman) and only then can young minds be entrusted to her. Evidence of wearing swimsuits and posting on social media, means that she has transgressed respectable femininity, and therefore, no matter what her skills and educational qualifications, by this one act of transgression she proves her lack of temperament to be a knowledge-giver. By foregrounding the body, she pollutes the profession that is the natural domain of the mind and therefore, the Brahmin man. To be accepted within its folds, she must leave behind the body, which is by its very existence marked by animalism, carnality, and sexual appetite—the source of dirt, pollution and filth.  To pose in a swimsuit, and to make available the photograph, is evidence of a lack of control over the body, which continues to be governed by passion, and therefore makes the woman incapable of fitting into the pristine, chaste, moral universe of the Bengali, upper-caste, Hindu. As the principal of the university stated in a recent interview “ In a sacred institution we need to be sacred.”

The message is clear: women teachers must not have a body, and if they do, it should not be visible.

Panchali Ray teaches at Krea University, Sri City.

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