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Centre for the Study of Culture and Society


Gender and culture Module 1

by ganesh last modified Jan 09, 2009 03:07 PM






Gender and Culture


Framing question: What is the specific relationship between these concepts, gender and culture, and why is it relevant to the history of women and of women’s movements in India?



The module will deal with the following ideas:


- How ideas on men and women get fixed and become part of patriarchal structures of oppression


- How feminism has pointed to a nature-culture opposition; and women in the non-west are relegated to the domain of culture (unlike in the west)


- The emergence of the ‘culture question’ in India and feminist approaches to national identity


- How formations of the notion of culture in the Indian context are premised on woman





1. The Problem of Gender


When we think of “men” or “women”, we tend to assume that the reference is to biological beings who are “naturally” inclined to behave in certain ways. Popular culture is full of images of typical behaviour patterns of those who come from either Mars or Venus. Television soaps, popular films, stories and cartoons in weekly magazines all tell stories filled with tragedy and comedy, pathos and humour. These emotions often derive from fixed ideas of male and female attitude, activity and appearance.


The ideas tend to get fixed and re-fixed through various cultural forms, and circulated in a range of media. Cultural forms include all kinds of texts and practices that contribute to and change the ways in which we identify with a certain identity (for eg Indian). For instance, the idea that women are nurturing and men are aggressive is a cultural idea, not a natural one. It is an idea that gets naturalised and we assume that women are like that, when it is actually a notion that is born out of a certain fixed way of understanding men and women (perhaps through educational texts, media representations, scientific research that claims it as fact, or religious views). The key problems with these fixed ideas are that (a) they give little scope for understanding change in how real men and women live, and (b) they tend to create a hierarchy, placing women in an inferior position. The consequences are serious, and have led to the operation of what has been called patriarchal [explain this term] structures of oppression.




List some stereotypes about men and women that you are familiar with, whether in films, or in opinions that circulate around you. It would be useful to list views on activity, appearance and attitude. Discuss these in relation to whether or not you think they are ‘true’, and where these stereotypes generally circulate (where they are promoted, what groups they are attached to, how they are linked to politics).


Both men and women over the centuries have tried in different ways and in different societies to question some of these stereotypes [explain this term] Early critical writing about this problem can be seen in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Structures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) [citation] which was written after the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft argued that the declaration of human rights sweeping across the world at that time did not include half the human race because it focussed only on the rights of “man”. She also criticised women for succumbing to fixed ideas of femininity and wasting their time in reading romantic novels instead of becoming aware of their true potential.



2. The Nature-Culture binary


Other critical writers talked about how Western civilization was seen as being born out of the activity of great men, and how the struggle of the civilizers was always against the women who kept pulling them back to a state of nature. The wilderness being tamed by the men was a metaphor for the female nature that had to be conquered. Feminist [feminist: speaks from the perspective of one who is interested in dismantling the ideas and institutions that are based on the subjugation of women] scholars in the West suggested that nature and culture formed a binary [explain term]. “[In western feminist history] the most common pair of terms to be evoked and fought over are nature and culture.” [Mary John, “Feminism in India and the West”, Cultural Dynamics 10 (2), 197-209]. By analyzing the nature-culture binary, western feminists produced important critiques of organization of knowledge as well as institutions like family. However, in non-Western societies, women were historically seen as part of Culture.


Feminist approaches to national identity: Feminist historical scholarship in India has been able to show that the formulation of notions of culture in India were crucially related to women. This draws our attention to the significance of the culture question under colonial rule. With culture understood here as a mark of distinctiveness and distinction in relation to the colonizing West, we also gain insights into how a historically specific way of thinking about Indian women came to be naturalised or made obvious.


The discussions about culture in gender theory in India are based on critiques of the nationalist project in both pre- and post-Independence phases. Feminists have looked at the time of the anti-colonial struggles and how a self-constructed Indian identity was born in opposition to the view the colonisers had of the natives. They have also gone on to theorise the post-independence time, when it was important to decide how India would imagine itself, as an independent nation that was no longer subject to British rule. This imagination of India gave rise to a range of representations within various fields. In a range of writings spanning a variety of disciplinary locations (history, sociology, literary studies, art history, film studies) feminist scholars have engaged with and analysed the formation of normative femininity [explain term] as it takes shape in the context of discussions about Indianness. Approaching the problem from a different direction, some writers have looked at the formation of the normative citizen-subject [explain term] in India, arguing that it is informed by debates on the woman question as well as by new embodiments of masculinity and femininity. This has been a way of understanding and critiquing political forms from the standpoint of gender, saying that the citizen is not a neutral category in the way in which it functions. Certain bodies do not ‘fit’ the idea of the citizen (in how they are ‘wrongly’ masculine or feminine); and the idea of the citizen rests on specific ways in which women are positioned. CROSS-REFERENCE WITH MASCULINITY-FEMININITY MODULE.


3. Emergence of the culture question:


How are ‘we’ different from ‘them’? This question is posed in the third world or more broadly non-Western societies as part of a colonial contestation. By this we mean a contest between colonizer and colonized on the relative merits of their cultures. With the onslaught of the colonizing West in India in the late 18th to early 19th century, some of the colonized Indians responded by asserting the superiority of their own culture. If we look at how the term for “culture” emerged in modern Indian languages, we notice that the most commonly used term, sanskriti, is actually a translation of the English word “culture”. 


The point being made here is not that there was no concept of culture before the English introduced it, but that after the 19th century we invest different meanings in culture. It becomes the location of everything that is uniquely ours, and therefore different from anything that can be found in the world of the colonizer. As we become modern Indians, and then go on to become citizens of an independent nation, we hold on to the idea of “our culture” as setting us apart from others.


Here the culture question is an intimate part of the formation of our modern identity, but culture in modernity tends to be seen as something that remains outside of modernity [needs explanation]. This mean that in discussions on/descriptions of what is ‘modern’, culture is made to stand as that which is not-modern, that which is traditional and is outside the processes of westernisation that then come to be seen as modern. Something like the Internet is then seen as part of ‘modernity’, while Ayurveda comes to be seen as inherently part of an ‘Indian’ culture. This curious relationship between culture and modernity, a relationship that has its roots in the colonial context, may give us some indication as to why women occupy the place they do in discussions about culture.


This issue is not specific only to India. There are many similarities between the Indian context and other societies across Asia.


4. The woman question in Asia:


Kumari Jayawardena’s classic work Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (1986) had argued that in the non-West these two movements share an intimate relationship. Parallelly, the ‘culture question’ also becomes a ‘national culture question’, with significant implications for women. Although nationalist movements fighting against the colonizer enable women’s political participation, they also create for them a fixed position in the symbolism of national culture. [Give eg. We can see examples of this in the production of the New Woman in Japan or Korea or India].


A criticism routinely faced by feminists across Asia is that they are deracinated or alienated from ‘our culture’, that feminism comes from the West and is therefore an alien set of ideas. Interestingly, this is not a charge levelled against any of our other political frameworks (eg. Marxism, liberalism) which may also be far from having a clearly identifiable local or indigenous source. Why then does feminism come under fire for being alien? Feminist demands are allegedly demands arising from ‘modernization’, which is seen to erase ‘our’ culture and replace it with western values and ways of life. This criticism is easily made, but it does not take into account how the notion of culture itself has been put together in our context.


One of our starting points would be to understand (a) how the creation of the national essence was based on the assertion of cultural difference from the West (how ‘we’ are different from ‘them’), and (b) how women were frequently represented as the embodiment of that difference (that it is in women, their bodies and lives, that this difference lives). When nationalists in the non-Western world produce a relationship of conflict between modernity and culture, what is being implied is that women are part of that which is cultural and therefore authentic. They cannot be part of the modern. So when women behave in ways associated with modernity (read assertive, individualistic, ambitious…) they are seen as challenging their place in Indian culture and therefore undermining that culture itself. These inter-related ideas have presented a serious problem for feminists in India who are trying to question the place ascribed to women. So it is through feminist efforts that we gained insights into how a historically specific way of thinking about Indian women came to be naturalised.  Feminist historians have been able to show that the formulation of notions of culture in India were premised on woman,


Read the following quotation:


From Partha Chatterjee, “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question”:

[In struggling against colonial domination, nationalists looked for a resolution to the contradictions involved in being simultaneously attracted to and repelled by Western ideas]


“…[T]his resolution was built around a separation of the domain of culture into two spheres – the material and the spiritual. It was in the material sphere that the claims of western civilization were the most powerful. Science, technology, rational forms of economic organisation, modern methods of statecraft, these had given the European countries the strength to subjugate non-European peoples and to impose their dominance over the whole world. To overcome this domination, the colonized people must learn these superior techniques… But this could not mean the imitation of the West in every aspect of life… What was necessary was to cultivate the material techniques of modern western civilization while retaining and strengthening the distinctive spiritual essence of the national culture”.


[Chatterjee goes on to argue that the material/spiritual distinction was condensed into a powerful distinction between inner and outer, home and world, private and public. The distinctions were mapped onto gendered social roles, as the new middle class men went out to work and mingle with Europeans and women were entrusted with the burden of maintaining the purity of the inner world. In reconciling modernity with nationalism, a new patriarchy was assembled, with new roles for women. In other words, in order to make the drive towards technology, science and rationality acceptable, in order to make modernity acceptable to and in the Indian context, a spiritual inner domain was imagined, and this was to be occupied by women, who by doing this would uphold Indian culture as superior to that in the West. The idea of the middle class woman took shape: cultural refinement, formal education, appropriate spiritual forms of femininity.]


“The need to adjust to the new conditions outside the home had forced upon men a whole series of changes in their dress, food habits, religious observances and social relations. Each of these capitulations now had to be compensated by an assertion of spiritual purity on the part of women. They must not eat, drink or smoke in the same way as men; they must continue the observance of religious rituals which men were finding it difficult to carry out; they must maintain the cohesiveness of family life and solidarity with the kin to which men could not now devote much attention”.


Questions about the reading:


Activity: Put together photographs from family albums or from other sources that show women and men’s dress from the 19th century to the present. Explain what the similarities and differences between the pictures are.


As Chatterjee shows in the quotation above, the assigning of new roles to women also had to do with the formation of the new urban middle class in colonial times.


Read the following quotation:


Sumanta Banerjee, “Marginalization of Women’s Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Bengal” from Recasting Women [Sangari and Vaid 1989]:


“Englishmen, like [Augustus] Willard, who came to Bengal in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, carried two burdens: the ‘white man’s burden’ of educating the unenlightened natives, and the ‘man’s burden’ of emancipating native women from what they considered to be a socio-cultural milieu of utter ignorance and impurity. The latter burden came to be shared by the English-educated Bengali bhadralok of the nineteenth century (sons of absentee landlords, East India Company agents and traders who made fortunes in the eighteenth century, various professionals and government servants) all of whom, in spite of differences in economic and social status, were moving towards the development of certain common standards of behaviour and cultural norms….There were subtle differences among members of the nineteenth century Bengali urban elite over the extent to which women should be educated and allowed free movement in society. However, they all agreed on the need to eradicate what they were trained to believe was the pernicious influence of certain prevailing literary and cultural forms on Bengali women, particularly on the women belonging to their own homes.  [Popular culture – doggerel, poetry, songs, theatrical performances – had wide appeal for a female audience, but because it was produced by those who were not part of the bhadralok’s official culture, there were systematic attempts to get rid of it]



Questions about the reading:




Activity: Observe women from different social backgrounds in a public place like a market or a railway station. Focus on how they speak, how they walk and sit, and how they are perceived by others, especially men (from different classes).


Part of the colonial contestation was carried out in the domain of law and governance. One of the most significant debates related to the abolition of the practice of sati [Explain term]. The debate shows vividly how the women’s question became the ground for the discussion about Indian culture.


Read the following quotation:


From Lata Mani’s “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India”:


“…[T]radition is reconstituted under colonial rule and, in different ways, women and brahmanic scripture become interlocking grounds for this rearticulation. Women become emblematic of tradition, and the reworking of tradition is largely conducted through debating the rights and status of women in society. Despite this intimate connection between women and tradition, or perhaps because of it, these debates are in some sense not primarily about women but about what constitutes authentic cultural tradition.”


Questions about the reading:




Feminist writing on more contemporary issues may not have directly addressed the culture question as such, but it is possible to look at some of the 1990s discussions, say around religious community, or around caste, as referring implicitly to the culture question. (Possible Activity: List two or three debates or controversies In the 90s and how the culture question enters the picture vis a vis these). If religious identity and caste identity came to be seen as non-modern in the political controversies of the 1990s, women were also implicated in this naming process. Modern women, like upper caste men from the dominant religion, in claiming their rights as women ended up claiming them against women and men from less-privileged backgrounds.


Quotations from UCC debate and from Tharu-Niranjana essay (The contemporary theory of gender) to foreground the religion and caste question


Quotes: Beauty contest material, UCC debate, Devika anthology


Activities: To see and analyse – movie clips (Fire, Dostana), photographs, calendar art (from Patricia Uberoi collection),


Art (Surekha, Vasudha Thozhur, Pushpamala, Anju Dodiya)

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