Whose discourses are these...?
The Gender Genealogy and Women Issues in Northeast India
questions of tradition and cultural identity
The biggest threats to women studies within the locus of the cultural practices of Northeast India can be counted as follows: (i) firstly, its peripheral existence vis-à-vis other Indian demographic existence and (ii) secondly, it’s untiring distance from the ‘second’ and the ‘third’ wave feminist movements of Western intelligentsia, (iii) thirdly, its multi-ethnic accumulation devoid of complimentarity and the ethos of multiculturalism beyond ethnic boundary maintenance, and (iv) fourthly, its overemphasis on the prevailing customary dominant discourses relating to women as custodian of cultural identity. These threats are so haphazardly traversed with one another that any straightforward analysis of women issues irrespective of race, tribe or community is comprehensively hindered by the web of issues arising out of those hazards in the location.
Gendered body vs. Cultural nobody
The basic question that may arise in the trajectory between gender to women studies in this specific context is that what kind of women identity or existence is represented by the cultural practices in Northeast India? Do the social edifice of gender and its socio-political representation paradoxically undercut the feminist goal of representation of women in Northeast India? However, it is needless to say that corresponding to the demographical diversity, the stable and unified notion of gender is required to be undermined for tracing women issues and representational politics in Northeast India. On the other hand, in mapping out the women issues in this segregated area, a genealogical critique is always a prime requisite as the perspective refuses to search for the origin and the foundational truth of gender and female desire; rather the perspective seeks to investigate the complex course of descent and the effect of various institutions, practices and discourses with assorted number of origins that constitute the identity categories. Within the ambit of Northeast India, the search for the origin of gender categories vis-à-vis their social existence and identity cannot be accompanied with exhaustive criticism; Northeast is a location where the gendered existence is the cynosure of one’s socio-cultural identity and the way to cultural practices. And it is the gendered existence through which the society recognizes one’s sexual identity, belonging and even the status quo.
What is universally acknowledged as the fundamental continuum for practicing feminism is hypothetically fundamental to the female of the Northeast region. But does it signature the cause of female liberation and the exigencies of women studies in this location? If we consider Simon de Beauvoir’s provocative comment in The Second Sex that “one is not born as a woman, but, rather, becomes one” is essentially true, this is essentially true to the Northeast Indian cultural practices (301). The gender bias of the cultural practices in Northeast India is so exhaustively institutionalized in the socio-cultural arena of the tribes and communities that thoroughly accentuates the gendered existence of femininity and masculinity at all. It is meticulously constructed by the womanizing practices in institutionalized structure. The foundational institution of that womanizing mission is the family itself and the mother (or elsewhere the grandmother or sisters) are the trailblazers of that institution. The gendered boundary being a female is inculcated within a ‘girl’ child right from the beginning and thereby she starts to familiarize with the gendered practices and customary behaviours. Bodo women teach their girls the art of weaving from a young age. The Dokhnas are made by themselves. One’s arriving at the puberty is the culmination of her womanizing process. The ‘girl’ is inculcated with stock behaviours, ethics, norms and practices which are typically considered typical to be a ‘woman’ in the civil society of most of the communities and tribes of Northeast India. It is a process of feminization through which a girl is impelled to feel that ‘she’ is all feminine from inside and thereby needs some restrictions and confinements as well. In consequence of such feminization, determinism curtains the nature of free will. Besides the repression of phallogocentrism, heterosexuality and other related fields like poverty, illiteracy or the downbeat causes of popular culture, her cultural practices and behaviour are methodically genderised in a patriarchic society which is based on traditional determinism.
Considering the havoc of these terms like determinism and construction, Butler reveals her anxiety in a clear voice:
Within those terms, “the body” appears as a passive medium on which cultural meanings are inscribed or as the instrument through which an appropriative and interpretive will determines a cultural meaning for itself. In either case, the body is figured as a mere instrument or medium for which a set of cultural meanings are only externally related. (emph. original, 8)
The customary practices like dress codes, ornament, hair-style and even the way of talking, behaving or smiling are customarily inculcated into that ‘body’ emblematical to the stigmata of tradition and cultural identity. As C.S. Lakshmi believes, even if in the time-space continuum the body is an active agent, it is forcefully stigmatized with the attempt to write “the notion of an unbroken tradition” and a well-preserved essential cultural identity on the body (55). Hence the female dancers of the cultural festival of various communities and tribes are always considered as the romanticized heroines of tradition and cultural identity. The direct impact of that over romanticisation is found in the high capital of the dresses of those romanticized heroines. The price of the dress of an Assamese naxoni (female dancer) is more than triple of a dhulia (male counterpart); the dress of a Mompa female dancer is valued more than eighty thousand. A traditional Bugun dancer wears ornaments of precious stones and gold. Same is the case with the other tribes like Rabha, Sherdukpen, Adi, Bodo and so on. A traditional Mompa woman wears precious stones of different colors for maintaining cultural ethos and tradition along with a traditional dress namely Shrinka. These stones are so precious that cost more than lakh rupees. Likewise every tribe of NE India has specialized dress code representing cultural identity. The veil system, so pertinent in Assamese and Bengali societies, itself becomes a metaphor for “closed mind, parochialism and orthodoxy” along with the oppressive structure of the society as well (Nayar 143). The old Adi woman always wear yellow necklace and spiral earrings, whereas the unmarried Adi girls wear Beyop- an ornament consisting of five brass plates symbolizing womanliness. The older Apatani women mark tattoo in hands, arms and face for cultural significance. The same tribe considers that their women are so beautiful and hence to save them from other tribes, the Apatani women wear large wooden plugs in their noses namely Yapin Hulu. The stock dresses, ornaments and other wearing are customized in such a way that thoroughly essentialised the cultural identity of the respective tribe or community. In such cultural practices, the body is itself converted into a customized space for writing cultural identity and history as well. The personal identity is lost in such writings converting the subjective body into a cultural nobody representing simply race, class or cultural identity. But can such a body used as a territory in the name of guardianship of cultural identity, be liberated from the trap of hegemony!
Gendered northeast vs. Endangered identity
In the Cultures of Peace - Festival of the Northeast, 2014, Jarjum Ete- one of the female activists of this location remarks in a pessimistic tone: "(T)he value of being a feminist is yet to get into our DNA. The identities of tribes, families and political groups take precedence. We must see how we change our mindsets as feminists" (Times of India, Feb 1, 2014). If this will be the condition of the female activists of this region, then what will be the scope for discussion of postcolonial geography and feminism vis-à-vis the social reality and literature of Northeast India? Postcolonial geography and feminism are not only instrumental in resisting colonial representation of geography and women in discursive practices but also productive in generating consciousness-raising and recovering private spaces dominated by hegemonic institutions of power and discourses. With special focus on the operation of the dominant discourses in the complex course of decent of culture, these innovative approaches have been credited with the effort of exploring the marginalized voices and hidden spaces. And for the same, it is required to explore the dominant discourses working in this location in marginalizing women. On the other hand, as Jonathan Crush has remarked, postcolonial geographies are marked with the agenda of “de-linking of local geographical enterprise from metropolitan theory and its totalizing systems of representation” (336). Hence while resisting the dominant discourses and the hegemonic forms of power, postcolonial geographies re-read the hidden spaces and places and endeavors to trace new cultural and geographical meanings.
In relation to women issues, the postcolonial geographies of Northeast India fastidiously point out that the dominant discourses like of gender are not only the creation of colonial hegemony, but also the products of the institutional patriarchy. The gendered division of socio-cultural and political labour and allocation of specific forms of labour to women is not new to this region; rather it is a nationwide patriarchal ‘project’. Likewise in India, patriarchy is not limited to familial relations and marriage only; it becomes a whole sets of institutions based on the ideology of patriarchy. The Zemei Naga males are prohibited to touch the meat of an animal killed by a woman, because bravery is the quality of male only (Zehol 302). The Zeliangrong Naga men believe that sleeping with one’s wife before going to hunting may bring bad luck. In traditional Assamese and Bengali society, the religious and cultural rituals of marriage and death ceremony are thoroughly gendered; female virginity is worshiped in Kumari Puja; Xeng Bihu or the Kartik Puja of Koch-Rajbangshi are that imaginative spaces of women where they celebrate their femininity and autonomy casting away them from institutional patriarchy. The greatest slogan of Assam Sahitya Sabha namely “Chira Chenehi Mor Bhasa Janani”, the slogan of AASU (All Assam Students Union) namely “Jai Aai Asom”, are highly gendered slogans of transforming women into the guardian and biological reproducer of language and statehood respectively. Even the Northeast India itself is introduced as “Saat-Bhani” or “Seven-Sisters” which is the metonym of Mother-India.
These iconographies not only bear testimonies to a community’s cultural past and identity, but also constant efforts in vindicating the stability and safety of cultural identity in terms of gendered ideology. As everything in a postcolonial and modern geography is in “a state of flux”, woman is the only symbol always required to be projected as “stable and safe” (Nayar 125). And what seems really fascinating in such discourses is that the gendered cultural practices not only differentiate labor in terms of gender but also impel the process of creation of imaginative spaces of female autonomy and new iconography of gendered identity and moral.
Tense space vs. Intense pace
Let us see how these two poetic passages reflect the paradox in reality:
I will not unfasten my hair
I am a village girl
Village girls do not unfasten their hair
Do not look up towards the sky
(Gambhini Devi, “A Village Girl” 1-4, 10-11)
The reality of music is a problem
Waiting to be solved by the black guitar
Not the girl, nor the jug of blue hibiscus
(Mona Zote, “Girl with Black Guitar and Blue Hibiscus, 1-3)
Though a ‘village girl’ and a ‘city girl’ cannot be generalized in terms of gender and sexuality, the two passages epitomize the way of life style, body politics and cultural constructs of gendered identity in two different geographies. If the issues related to women are different in village and metropolis, the policies of resistance to the dominant discourses are unlike as well. In a nutshell, these issues are different in relation to two different cohorts of women- one represents tradition, other breaks-up with tradition; one represents tense space of femininity, other intense pace of modernity; one succumbs to the body politics, other re-writes new language of body politics; one considers identity as essential, other as anti-essential. This clash between essential and anti-essential agendas of race and cultural identity often modulate any precise analysis of women issues in Northeast India and in other parts of the country as well. Although most of the customary practices are similar in both village and metropolis, in educated and uneducated, tribal and non-tribal societies, the division in-between them is mostly created by changed world views, tastes and cultural practices. For example, in most of the tribal societies like the Mompas in Arunachal Pradesh, polygamy is considered customary; but in Assamese or Bengali societies, it is not permissible. Even in gender-neutral cultural practices like nun and monk of the Buddhist tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, gendered or sexual identities are thrown away with uniform dress-code and appearance; but within that gender-neutral geography, till date nun cannot become a Geshe (PhD holder).
These paradoxes are the clashes between orthodoxy and liberalism, between rigid and egalitarian perceptions. When the new Assamese Bihu VCDs depict the Assamese life and society in a traditional way showing a village with open rice field, fishing, or reaping women, female Bihu dancer under Bunyan tree, or women to fetch water from river, these not only reinforce traditionality over modernity but also reinstate gendered cultural practices and the notion of romantic heroines bearing cultural identity in digital ways. Such practices and ways of life strongly stand in opposite to the lives in cities and metropolis. Now the question is which women society is represented by those VCDs and who’s Assameseness? The issues of women empowerment like illiteracy, unemployment can be treated with proper governmental or non-governmental policies; but what sorts of enforcement is required to resist those discursive formations relating to gendered identity and marginality? Historical legacies are quite extraneous in such contexts. For example, in traditional Naga societies, women were given a superior place in social power structure. In villages like Thowai and Kangpot, women were the village chiefs. A woman namely Maram Harkhosita was appointed as the commander-in-chief of the village army. But in our present patriarchal structure, such generative examples are found atypical. In metropolis, a woman can be appointed as the mayor of the municipality, but in village councils, the concept of a Gawnburhi (female head of village) instead of a Gawnburah (male head of village) will surely sound redundant, especially in Assamese and most of the tribal societies.
Whose discourses are these…?
Within these institutions of power and discursive formations, main problems are not with the increased crime against women; but with the dominant discourses and ideologies that constitute women as a gendered subject of inferiority, flaw and consummation. The fundamental problems are lying with the mentality and attitudes which are flanged by such discourses pertaining to the existing social structure. Within the dome of these haphazard encumbrances, what the women studies in present context seek globally to investigate in the name of cultural meanings of being a woman or the socio-political meaning of the apophthegm ‘the personal is political’ seem empirically disruptive and impenetrable. In traditional societies of NE India, concealing personal is the moral. All these levelheaded hindrances have engendered serious impediments in studying the issues related with women of Northeast India in a global podium. Although, the problems are not restricted to these practical issues only; concerning the haphazard objectives of women studies or feminism as well, Simon During raises an exigent query:
The question now is: what does feminism want? Feminism’s early forms had clear visions: equality of rights and opportunities; an end to the dominance of the male gaze; the unfolding of a woman’s culture on its own terms. The right and opportunities agenda is (albeit slowly) being met, and the culture of gender and sexuality has been transformed since the advent of feminism, although not in ways that the early feminists would have foreseen or for the most part approved. But what now? (emph. original, 177)
In the global platform, especially within a cohort of educated women, women studies have emphasised on gender issues and queer politics theorizing a politics of sexuality for generating an anti-essentialist agenda of women identity. But for us, the question of prime importance is that have these developments empowered the women of Northeast India or are these developments converted into a mass movement in Northeast India?
In Northeast India, women as a category are living in different communities, tribes, ethnicities and places; and crossing these different boundaries, ‘women’ as a class is found empirically outsized to generalize within a specific group of shared issues. Apart from mutual sexual or bodily issues, the socio-cultural and political questions are totally diversified and ethnically oriented. Hence, beyond these diversified questions and belongings, we need a set of shared agendas and constraints in order to solidify the races of women within a single group. If we cannot have such collective agenda and policy, the etymological issues of women studies or feminist politics will seem itself redundant and exclusive.
Beauvoir, Simon de. The Second Sex. trans. E.M. Parshley. New York: Vintage, 1973. Print.
Butler, Judith. Gender Studies: Feminism and Subversion of Identity. 1st ed. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.
During, Simon. Cultural Studies: a critical introduction. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Lakshmi, C.S. “Bodies Called Women: Some Thoughts on Gender, Ethnicity and Nation”, in Selvy Thiruchandran (ed.), Women, narration and Nation: Collective Images and Multiple Identities. New Delhi: Vikas. 1999. Print.
Mishra, Tilottoma ed. The Oxford Anthology of Writings from North-east India: Poetry and Essays. 1st ed. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
Nayar, Pramod Kumar. Postcolonial Literature: An Introduction. 1st ed. New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley (India) Pvt. Ltd., 2008. Print.
Zehol, Lucy 2003. ‘Status of Tribal Women’, in Tanka Bahadur Subba (ed.): Anthropology of northeast India: A Textbook (293-306). New Delhi: Orient Longman.