By Pradip Phanjoubam
Great ideas provoke further thoughts, and therefore debates. The Thingnam Kisan memorial lecture by well known public intellectual, theatre director, brilliant scholar and untiring social activist, Aramabam Lokendra, last Thursday was one such. The topic which he chose to speak on was “Women, Society and Performance: A Peep into Manipur History,” and true to expectations, he conjured up a convincing picture of why though modern history has been largely silent on the role of women, the Manipuri women’s role has always been anything but insignificant. He drew from the places rich traditions of folklores, myths and ancient textual records (of which Manipur is happily quite well endowed), to build his argument. It was a delightfully fascinating conducted tour of records maintained in oral story tradition and rare books such as Leimaren Laichat, Panthoibi Khonggul, Naothingkhong Phambal Kaba, Thawan Thaba Hiran, Chainaro,l and the mentions of women in these texts.
The chronology of these records is important. The continual transition of the society and its values through the ages became quite apparent. As for instance, the shifting structures of the social institution of family was evident in such facts as the virtual absence of widows in a society in which wars with neighbours were endemic. Obviously sexual mores and taboos were a lot different, and widow remarriage was not an issue at all. Maybe the logic worked the other way around as well. Maybe it was the wars, which obviously would have made male deaths frequent and perennial, which defined morality of issues such as these. Necessity knows no law they say, but it can equally be said necessity defines not just the shape of law but also morality.
I have no intention of critiquing the entire one hour lecture. First, because it would be virtually impossible considering the fund of rich ideas flagged, each deserving further debates and discussions. Indeed this was the case too, delaying the conclusion of the programme far beyond the scheduled hours. Instead I would just pick up the threat of some of the issues and extremely incisive observations which surfaced in the discussion hours pertaining to the virtually disappearance of women from public life in modern times. The biggest evidence of this is the fact that there have been so few women in the state legislature in the state’s entire modern legislative history. In the current Assembly, of the 60 MLAs, only two are women. This meagre representation has been true of most of the past Assemblies, and in some of them, there were no women at all. The question that evoked passionate interventions from the audience was, why is this so?
There was much to be said of the oppression of a patriarchal legacy and how this has meant the systematic subjugation of women through the gradual but definite evolution of a seemingly innocuous value system meant precisely to institutionalise the patriarchal order. No argument about this at all, for this is a reality before everybody today. As one among the audience observed (a woman for sure), a childless woman is considered a curse and bad omen, and though to a lesser degree, a woman who has not given birth to a male heir too.
To the list of atrocious disregard of the self esteem of women in the Manipur society, I would add the social allowance given to eves teasing, as if this was a natural thing, and that boys will always be boys, and by implication, girls will be girls. The moral status quo would have been okay had the scale on which gender equation stands was equitable. This not being the case, what is sought is the institutionalisation of a blatant inequity.
This is also the same skewed moral universe constructed by the patriarchy which criminally gives allowance to polygamy and mistress keeping. It is amazing this society cannot imagine what insult this would mean for the women. As a recent article in The Guardian, London, pointed out of the obnoxious sexual harassment of young girls being masturbated at in public places in Britain, and the society turning a blind eye to the crime, this “like rape, is a crime that is about power and control. This is about men feeling entitled to sexual ownership of women’s bodies in public spaces, about a sense that they are powerful and in control and a belief that they will not be punished. It is also about the normalisation of sexual offences within a culture that suggests women should just shut up and get used to it.”
It is no consolation that things are not as bad as this in Manipur. It is also no consolation that unlike in some other states of India no politician has had the temerity to say “boys will be boys and rape is sometimes natural”. The government should then, without further delay, make eves teasing and the practice of keeping mistresses and polygamy, strictly enforced punishable offences. But then, in such a circumstance, the guillotine would fall on the necks of so many men of power.
Another observation on the absence of women in politics in modern times was interesting for the everydayness of the inhibitor named. The observer, again a woman, said modern Manipuri women are trapped in their homes by household chores, leaving them little time to be in charge of the public arenas. They therefore need to be released from this responsibility, and her suggestion was that men should share the responsibility equally for this to become a reality.
This is well said and perfect from the standpoint of fairness, but there is a point to be raised. Sharing responsibility would lessen the burden on one half, but not reduce the aggregate burden to be borne. Strictly from a mathematical calculus, it is still a zero sum game, and what one gains would be the loss of the other. This is okay if we were to see the man-woman equation always as a binary, as if the two were enemies out to suppress the other. This we know is not always the case. Take my individual case. I have two daughters and no son. I grew up with three sisters and no brother. There is therefore no way I would want a social legacy which subjugated women.
In this regard, before coming out with my own problem solving strategies, I want to refer back to another point raised in Arambam’s lecture. He referred to how technology has always been a big catalyst in the evolution of the State. The yoking of two bulls to pull a plough was one of these landmarks on the road to State formation and consolidation. This invention he said augmented agricultural productivity radically and therefore resulted in surplus food. And the State, as we have seen, is in essence a mechanism for surplus management.
Other than technology enhancing productivity, I can think of another important contribution of technology, quite relevant to the answer I seek on the issue of sharing household chores responsibilities. Imagine the agrarian society again. The yoking of bulls to pull the plough would made agriculture more productive, but equally important, it would have released manpower from agriculture. The amount of labour 20 men/women would have had to put in on the paddy fields, would then have been done by one or two only, thereby freeing 18 men/women to engage their energy in other activities. This would have resulted in the birth of varied professions, so essential in any State building project.
It is only to be imagined how other technological advancements such as the arrival of the wheel, bullock cart, steel, horse, pulley, would have multiplied capabilities and with it manpower availability.
On the household chores issue then, perhaps the role of technology should also not be underplayed, although this is not to say the responsibility should not be shared. It should be, but it would be great if the burden to be shared can be reduced. In this sense, it would not be too far from the truth to say inventions such as the pressure cooker, LPG cooking gas and the washing machines etc are revolutionary. In the Indian social reality where household chores generally are so unfairly left with the women, it can veritably be said that the pressure cooker and the washing machine have made the emergence of the modern career women possible. Let there be a change in the social values that weigh down on the women, but let us not discount the problem solving possibilities technology can offer.
Let us also not forget that the responsibility of dismantling the patriarchal order or for that matter the burden of the guilt of its institutionalisation should not be men’s alone. We often overlook the fact that often women are the watchdogs of this order more than men and many men are more feminists than many women.
If the arts are the language of the heart and soul, then evidences of this anomaly are abundant in our literature, our cinema, our theatre, even our folktales and myths from our pre-literate days. Why otherwise would stories of the cruel stepmother-stepdaughter sagas, or the cruel mother-in-law haranguing daughter-in-laws or vice versa, be almost a pattern in our literature and other arts. Recall the story of Sandrembi and Chaishra, if still not convinced. Likewise, in the modern times, degrading moral policing of so called women of loose morality are more often than not done by women vigilantes. The oppressed are often more cruel to other oppressed, as Fanon tells us. For the oppressed sees his/her own degraded self image in other oppressed, and in seeking to destroy them, he/she is hitting out against his/her own degradation.
Gender emancipation is a must. Women must be given an equal standing in society, both in material as well as moral terms. But in doing so, it would be wrong to pit men and women as binaries, and therefore adversaries of each others. Such an approach would prove retrogressive for everybody.