Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Saying no to the patriarchy role model

Saying no to the patriarchy role model

By Daya Dissanayake

The Mitochondrial African Eve, who gave birth to the first Homo sapiens sapiens, somewhere near Lake Victoria in East Africa, could most certainly be the first member of the genus Gyna sapiens, introduced to us by Dr. Leonard Shlain, in 1998. Shlain claims Gyna sapiens is higher in the evolutionary ladder than Homo sapiens.

The 3.5 billion members of Gyna sapiens around the earth today do not need any additional labels. They do not have to call themselves 'feminists' or use terms like 'feminism' and 'femininity'. They have their identity, they have their power. They should be able to place the men in their place so the men would have to identify themselves as Masculinists or whatever.

In cyberspace I met a true member of Gyna sapiens. A writer from Orissa, who writes in her mother tongue, Oriya, and also English. Dr. Sarojini Sahoo, is a humanist, in the sense that she is writing against the domination of human-over-human, as described by Murray Bookchin. The feminists talk about domination of man-over-woman, but in reality there are women who dominate other women too. Sarojini's struggle is not just for the women in Orissa, or the Dalits and the scheduled castes or the women in India. Her struggle is for the emancipation of all who are under domination, men, women and children.


It is because as a woman, she feels. She feels the pain and suffering of the women and children, and even the men who are less equal and less powerful. Women have to lead this struggle.
Women are more intelligent, more capable, more courageous than men. They also live longer than men, everywhere on earth. If Gyna sapiens too behaved like Homo, humankind would have disappeared from the face of the earth thousands of years ago. They would not have been able to survive. Even today the woman outlives the man, under most conditions, in the most sophisticated social conditions in a city of a 'developed' country, or in the most underdeveloped village in an Asian or African country.

Critics and the media try to compare Sarojini Sahoo with Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf and Judith Butler. But she responds, "I consider myself more a writer and as a writer, I think I am always a genderless entity. A writer should not have any gender." Having said that, she puts the question to us, "But still, patriarchal society has prevailed; is there any possibility to have a genderless society?"

Sarojini believes that "BOTH (her emphasis) men and women are subjected to oppression and stereotypes and that these oppressive experiences have a profound effect on beliefs and perceptions." She is "against the patriarchy role model of society but says it does not mean that she wants to replace a matriarchal role model of society in place of the existing patriarchal one."

It could be that she wants to go back to the society we had long ago, where men and women enjoyed equal status, mutual respect and did not suffer oppression in any form.
On the idea of marriage, she says, "marriage must be taken out of the social realm and fully put back into the private one. Society should withdraw from marriage and allow the adults involved to work out their own definition of justice in the privacy of their own homes".

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On marriage, she often touches on monogamy, polygamy, polyandry and polyamory. Polyamory has a respectable term, 'consensual nonmonogamy' in the West, which is now getting openly accepted, like gay marriages. But in our part of the world, it is mostly a one way arrangement, where only the male partner has the privilege, so it is only polygyny, once more. Kings had harems, and Sarojini wonders if Draupadi was in love with all five Pandava brothers, which too could be considered polyamory.

A very important issue which Sarojini has raised often is on pornography. She has written, "Porn is a misogynist attitude which promotes the idea that women are shown in a subordinate role. Pornography contributes to sexism, violence against women, is a cause of rape, and also eroticises the domination, humiliation, and coercion of women."

Probably this is an issue which should be considered by all of us. Yet the difficulty would be because porn is big business. And today porn is accessible by anyone anywhere on earth, even on their mobile phones. And there is enough of it free, which gives a taste for the porn user, who will then get addicted and will start paying for more and more. It is the same way young people get hooked on drugs, and how we all got hooked on tea. Unfortunately porn has invaded into Sinhala literature once again after a few decades, that they are even considered for literary awards too.

The modern day concept of beauty takes her to the issue of the skin colour of women. Here too the cosmetics industry is raking in billions by duping women with products to make the skin fairer. Sarojini sees the irony in the fact that these same cosmetic industry is now targeting men too, offering them a fairer skin. The skin colour also has become a part of the racist attitude among some Indian communities.

 Woman is the only female animal who tries to impress the male of the species, while with almost all other animals, it is the male who has to impress and attract the female. The females of other animal species never needed any Chausath Kala (hetahatara mayam). Every process by which the modern woman tries to look more feminine, is an act against nature, and the raw material used, the processing, the waste products, and finally the end product itself harms our environment, at every step of the way. And in the end it harms women too, because men get used to seeing the external, synthetic beauty of the woman. When it fades away, when cosmetics and technology could not hide her fading beauty, man turns away from her in disgust. Had the woman been able to attract the man with her inner beauty, with her natural self, which would grow with age instead of fading away, man would get closer to her. If we are to achieve that we should ban all advertising where woman is used as a sex object, to promote more and more cosmetics for the women.

With the fashion and cosmetic industries targeting men more and more, in the near future we could see a narrowing of the external appearance of men and women, and we may have a problem identifying the gender from their appearance, clothes or make-up. We could all end up like the person at the airport in Brigid Brophy's 'In Transit' (1969). Even in the field of education and earning power the women are already leading. In America the latest statistics show that the woman of the house is becoming the major breadwinner, and sometimes the sole breadwinner. Women are also proving they are more capable of being employed, running the household and bringing up children, without a man in the house.

Gender's role in language

As a writer and a Gyna sapiens, she has taken up the issue of the role of gender in language, because most languages evolved under a patriarchal control. Her own language, Oriya, has gender-neutral characteristics, like several other Indian languages, Tamil, Assamese and Bengali. Because she writes in Oriya and in English, she is faced with the practice in the English language to use the masculine gender where it should really be gender-neutral. When it comes to professions, the name implies the male, and when referring to a woman, the usage has come to be 'lady doctor' or 'lady lawyer', not 'doctoress' or 'lawyeress'. She points out that Chairman, Postman, always meant both.

Sarojini is conveying her message to the world, not only through her essays and speeches, but through the more popular medium of creative fiction.

Her short stories and the novels reach a much wider readership, and get talked about more.

And her message is getting through. Sarojini Sahoo need to be translated into our languages, Sinhala and Tamil, too, including her novel, 'The Dark Abode' and her short stories in English. And someday perhaps, her novels in Oriya and Bengali.

Soon we could expect a new sex-reversed culture. The real sex-reversed culture had happened in human society sometime in our history when the woman began to demean herself by trying to attract the male of the species. But Margaret Mead was also thinking like a man when she wrote about the 'sex-reversed culture' of the Chambri society in New Guinea, just because the men were adorned with make-up and ornaments.

This article was published in Sri Lankan national news paper ‘The Daily News’ in its September 5, 2013 issue.

The author is a Sri Lankan fiction writer who won Sri Lanka State Award for the Best English Novel 2013 for his book  'Miracle Under the Kumbuk Tree.'
He can be reached at daya@saadhu.com

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Saga of a Feminist Writer 3

There were huge differences among us. I had wings and she didn’t. I roamed around in all nooks and crannies of the town but she used to know only the way from home to the girls’ school and back again. She silently obeyed everyone; I never listened to anyone. She knew a lot of things. She knew how to make rice and chapattis, wash the house, arrange the shelves, and wash clothes. She used to get up at three in the morning, along with mother, and participate in the Thursday rituals, in the month of December. She used to feed us and look after us; she used to do everything. I never heeded to any request to do any errands. If mother sent me to get salt from the shop, I used to spend the money on getting a haircut at the hair salon. I got beaten for that but I was never really scared of beatings. In my story ‘Volcano’, I have tried to portray her.

I have told everything and somehow more about her in my above story. She was my elder sister, only five years older than me. I can remember how my mother did not like my habit of roaming and my likings for fashions. I used to wear ‘bell bottom pants’ which was excessive ultra modern fashion in seventies and she used to cut those pants with scissors and on the next day I went for a new one with same design. I can remember, during the period of emergency, the then Chief minister of Odisha Ms. Nandini Satpathy was inspired and activated herself more than Prime Minister Ms. Indira Gandhi. The only major job of state police was in those days to fetch young boys and girls from street and to cut the bell bottom pants of girls and long hairs (they say hippie hairs) of boys. Father bought two sarees for me and I wore saree for the first time in my life and if credit for that went to any one she was veteran lady Nandini Satpathy. What my mother couldn’t do with her strong disciplined rule, Ms. Satpathy could during those emergency days. But as soon as emergency was withdrawn and people declines both Indira and Nandini, I returned back to my old form. Wearing ‘lungi and tops’ the recent fashions of that time.

After my marriage, I came to Rampur Colliery, a century old coal mine, which was not famous in Odisha for its mining but for Jagadish. But the colony was an alienated one and I felt myself exiled and outsider to that place. At that time coal mines were nationalized and they were much more different from the status which now they possess. The colony, at the top of a hill and at 3Km far from a small town; and it is need less to say that in early days of 80’s two wheelers were not common modes of communications for middle class people. I found my self on the land where people, their languages and culture were very different from mine. I didn’t find my known semi feudal civic town there in Rampur colliery. Hence, I had no friend except Jagadish and I waited for him near window, looking for his way to return from office and when I saw him arriving, I rushed out side the home and asked him to go for a short walk. Sometimes we used to visit that 3 KM far small town, and used to watch movies in theatre halls or to eatery of small hotels. But that 6 Km to and fro walking by foot made me so tired that every time I had to vow that I wouldn’t go there in next time, My readers could presume that the vow was made to break on next days.

I was like a staff of other planet for the local coal miners there. It seemed peculiar to neighbour’s women that what was I doing with pen and papers every time besides passing my time in gossiping with them. They used to ask me, “We have heard you are writing books. What you write? How much you do you earn by writing books?” I had to tell them that I earned in thousands, otherwise I couldn’t’ stopped them from asking. But in return they remarked, “Your husband is a clever man, who has wedded to a wife who could earned thousands”. Later, these words were the source of laughing for us, me and Jagadish.

I have forgotten to tell you one thing. I am iconic with my short hair. It is also true that through out my child hood I had short hair. In high school one of my Didis (the lady teacher, as we call female teachers with that name) dragged me to staff common room and she pulled the hair from the sides of my ears and made a braid with these short hairs. I didn’t like my face after this hair dressing. But I started to grow my hair long while I joined my college and kept them growing till I crossed the University gates. It was perhaps in 1989, jagadish was invited to speak on Literature and politics, by ‘Sambad’ a renowned daily of Odisha on its annual day function in Bhubaneswar. We went to Bhubaneswar and Jagadish left for the venue earlier as the organizers sent vehicle and it was decided that I would reach there at the time of meeting. When I joined him, Jagadish got stunned to look at me. I had cut my long hairs and returned to the old form of my child hood appearance. After that meeting, he asked me, “What have you done? How could you return to your coal miners’ locality with that appearance?” I smiled back without answering him and I returned to Rampur Colliery with that gesture. My neighbour’s women in coal mine’s colony told me that I was looking like the English news reader of DD 1. Nithi Ravindran and Minu were the famous news readers on Delhi Doordarshan. Those were the days the private TV channels had not been launched and DD was the only channel on air.

I had my bachelor degree in law, post graduate degree in Literature. After my marriage I was offered with a lecturer post in newly built girls’ college in Cuttak city, to which my father did not agree. In his views, the job would create a disturbed home life and according to him a smooth home life is more needed than money. Though I was a member of High Court Bar Council, but the local judiciary was far from my place and also there was no vacancy in the nearby colleges. At that time, I read an advertisement for a lecturer in a college 15 KM far from my colony and had applied. It was strange that the expert came for interview was fan of my stories and he recommended my name though there were few candidates with strong recommendation from local authorities. And the college committee had to appoint me.

I joined that college when my daughter was only of two years old. There was neither any play school nor any crèche in that miners’ colony and the greatest problem was to look after my baby during my college time. My father helped me a lot by providing a domestic help to look after the baby. But still the hurdles were their. The college was 15 Km away and there was no single mode of direct communication. I used to reach college by changing three buses. First I had to go to the local town from my colony by school bus. Then from the bus stand of that town, I had to go to a bypass square which linked to different towns of the district. From this bypass square I used to avail a bus which could bring me to my college. I had to face very humiliation as the bus conductors were not willingly accept the short distance travelers. That up and down daily travel made me more tired.

College was also not apposite place for me. Our HOD’s wife was also a candidate for the post for which I had been appointed. My that senior colleagues had created a prejudiced concept for me that I was a sex positive obscene writer who writes the story like ‘Rape’ and I was not an ideal person to teach morality to students and he started a move to fire me as I had no moral authority to teach the innocent students. I am grateful to college organizing committee, who declineed such allegations against me. I remembered that the secretary at that time told those who were demanding my exclusion that if a teacher can teach the Shringar poems of the great poet Upendra Bhanja to her students, then what is harm in writing like a story ‘Rape’? The story was later translated in to all Indian languages including besides English and it was also got translated in to French and Spanish.

That time I wrote a story titled ‘Jahlad', which was published in a popular Odia fiction based literary magazine ‘Katha’. It was about a saga of a working woman who left her child at home and who had to face much discriminations at working place. My HOD took this issue promptly and complained that I had hampered the image of my college through this story and the college staff council asked me to beg apology for writing this story. The story is yet to be translated into English but has been included in my Odia short stories collection ‘Chowkath”. My other stories, mentioned in this piece can be read from my English books or from my blog ‘Scent of Own Ink'.

As my presence there in college was making my HOD intolerable, he used to engage the local young ‘mastans’ and ‘goondas’ to comment me with filthy vulgar languages at the bus stand from which I was using to avail buses to ascend on that land or to return. These troublemaker events made me more rigid and I decided not to quit my job as it was like a defeat if I renounce. Later I wrote a novel ‘Pratibandi’ whose main theme was based on my strong confirmation to my struggle.