Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home  > Tamilnation Library  > Women > Ideology, Caste, Class and Gender - Selvy Thiruchandran


From the Preface -

"This  book argues that women, despite caste and class differences that exist among them at individual levels, can be identified as also subjected to subordination by common culturally defined and culturally enforced patterns of restrictions. These restrictions are reinforced and transmitted by a common ideology. I use the concept of ideology in the Gramscian sense of the term. Ideology is present. as conceptions of the world and it is manifest in art, laws, economic activities and in all practical activities of individual and collective life. The answer as to why this subordination exists relates to the fact that the Tamil social formation acts as a power network which has its own gender regime.

Ideology sustains this regime, re-enforcing the subordination of women. This power regime allocates women a particular position in the social formation. The nature of this ideology is obviously an area of key importance for those who wish to transform oppressive practice. An analysis of the nature and role of ideology is the core theme of my research.

This research ties into contemporary debates about the relevance of post-Enlightenment universalism in a context where women are asserting their differences. What emerged from my research was that women are subject to the gender regime in their culture in ways which transcend the multiplicity of their experience. With this in mind I focus on the prevalence of gender ideology in the South Indian social formation and explore how gender ideology influences the daily lives of women.

This underscores the need to establish common ground between women so that they can engage in feminist practice to overcome the oppressive aspects of the gender regime, In order to explore the influence of gender ideology in contemporary lives ii is necessary to explore the construction of a gender hierarchy in South India and the transformations that occur in this hierarchy at different historical junctures. Before presenting the research questions and explaining the arguments of the research. I would like to make a personal detour. I want to briefly discuss the reasons which motivated me to select this research topic.

Coming from the multi-ethnic, plural society of Sri Lanka and being a part of the incipient women's movement, I realised that gender subordination was multi-faceted. A cross-cultural investigation within Sri Lanka had brought to light the ambivalent mixture of egalitarian customary laws and persisting male dominance in the general pattern of the social life of the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic groups. The ambivalence is structurally contradictory. This was the entry point for my research.

The same kind of contradictions are visible, when the Tamils living Sri Lanka and South India are compared. Ethnically, and for the most part, culturally, the Tamils of these two countries belong to the same stock.

However some of the overtly oppressive and discriminatory South Indian practices are not found among the Jaffna Tamils. Sati (self immolation), female infanticide prohibition of widow remarriage, and prohibition of property rights for women which affected the Tamil women of South India in the past had no influence the women of Jaffna.

The differences between the two ethnic groups could be attributed to the absence of a Brahmanical dominance in the socio-political and the socio-cultural life of the Jaffna Tamils. Both in politics and in social life, Jaffna was subjected to, non-Brahmanical Vellala hegemony. The ritual power of the Brahmins was subordinated to the socio-political power of the Vellala high caste (Perinbanayagam 1982:20). For this reason most of the overtly oppressive practice, and institutions did not penetrate into Sri Lanka.

Obeyesekere, while discussing the "implications of the Brahmanic values for the female role," argues that, the more the groups are sanskritised towards a Brahmanical scale of values, greater their oppression and frustration (Obeyesekere 1987:427-440). This historical reality has connections to caste as well as to the concept of ideology was a special emphasis on gender differentiation. The examination of the class factor will also be undertaken as an extension of the argument on the same principle Whilst gender is a central contradiction in social life it is in interplay with otl contradictions such as class and caste.

Ideology also, understood as a system of beliefs (views) which justifies a explains existing relations is usually examined in its dual role, in the dialectical process of being determined and at the same as determining. However, research is confined mainly to the determining aspect of ideology. The research conducted by investigating two aspects of social life where ideology plays a role.

1) The daily life patterns of women, and
2) Major trends and themes in Tamil films.

The daily life patterns of women are studied by focusing on a selection social institutions, rituals and gender specific concepts. The Tamil films analysed, with the realization of the importance of this media in general, and especially in the context of Tamil Nadu where the film industry has made a m; impact on socio-political development. According to a sample survey conducted by  L. Rudolph and S. Rudolph on communication exposure in Madras state, cinema is the biggest attracting medium for both the rural and urban sectors (Karat Prakash 1980:30). The number of Tamil films produced in Tamil Nadu has significant implications.

The Tamil films were specially chosen to ascertain important role of ideology. This is specifically done by an analysis of the images of women portrayed in films. In order to link theory with practice, an attempt is made to discover its relevance to social reality.

The research raises a few questions and makes an attempt to analyse them finding linkages from a historical deconstruction of gender ideology in the Tamil social formation. The questions, examined in the context of the contemporary situation, are placed within a historical perspective. The book is organised around fourteen chapters. The early chapters investigate the theoretical concepts used, discuss the relevance of such theories to my research and outline the methodology employed to gather the two types of data, i.e. from tlrc films and the daily life patterns of women.

The second part deals with the historicity. This identifies the process of the construction of the gender hierarchy in the Tamil social formation and explains how the concept of "otherness" for women was created as a consequence. A limited number of such constructions which contributed to gender hierarchy will be analysed in more detail. Concepts such as chastity and its relation to institutions such as widow seclusion are explained to show their linkages to the contemporary socio-religious experiences of women and to the film images of women.

The dichotomous image of women as mother/whore, Goddess/witch and the development of another dichotomy between the notion of femininity and the notion of rationality are traced in historical developments. The first dichotomy had its beginnings in the institution of prostitution, linked to the idea of feminine evil, this continues to this day in the image of women projected in the films. The dichotomy of femininity versus rationality has led to a series of dichotomies on gender lines. An ideology was projected through the following dichotomous concepts such as home life/life outside home, emotional/instrtrmental, weak/strong, nurture/income generation, private; public.

The colonial period saw the emergence of a contradictory ideological persuasion for women from social reformers. Cultural nationalism posited a glorified nationalistic image, a noble Oriental against the Occidental. Yet modernists encouraged the rise of incipient feminist consciousness. How far this ambivalence is reflected in the image of women in the film and in their social existence in the family is a question that is also raised. This is an attempt to understand the comprehensive pattern of ideology relating to women. The concepts, and institutions that are discussed, it has to be emphasised are treated as manifestations of gender ideololgy. This will show that the definition of' the privileges and pains of being a particular gender are historically contingent and variable. They are picked from history and shown as continuing to the present day in the social context and in the film image.

Having traced the institutions, rituals and concepts historically and identified the gender ideology within them, the manner in which they are followed, practised and used in the daily lives of the women will be identified through the interviews conducted with more than a hundred women.

This part examines and  determines the quantitative and qualitative levels and manners of the continuity of gender ideology. The caste and class variables are introduced as an addition of inquiry which examines the differential patterns of caste and class behaviour.

In effect this part of the book examines the working of gender ideology the family. Discrimination against women is explored on a three-tier, caste class division. Ideology is here investigated in terms of' social practice. The selection includes widow remarriage, widow seclusion, divorce, the mother in law syndrome and the rituals in which women participate. Mary Douglas (1970-21) argues that rituals should hetreated as speech forms and as `transmitters of culture' which communicate social information. Institutions can also be classified as communicators of social information. The selection of topics was primarily to show how an ideology was transmitted through them and how they  are connected in one way or other to the ideology pertaining to women.

The selected number of socio-religious institutions pertaining to women are studied in order to identify gender specific messages. The messages an related to and compared 'with messages given to women in the films. Both the
institutions studied and the messages identified are considered as manifestations of a common gender ideology. The institutions when related to contemporary situations are analysed from both the attitudinal and the experiential aspects of women. This is done specifically to differentiate structure from ideology.

The castes are broadly divided into "high" caste Brahmin, "middle castes and "lower" castes, called the "depressed caste,,". The class structure is that of an upper class; middle class, and low class. Variations and similarities are compared across caste and class. History is used to explain how and why women behave in a particular manner, and are made to conform to such behaviour. A hundred and twenty women are included in the sample survey.

The second and third sections provide the base for the second area of investigation which is in relation to the Tamil films. The section on Tamil films investigates the construction of womanhood in the institution of South culture: films. An analysis of these films in terms of characters, themes a resolutions is presented. The impact of these films on the audience was then assessed by a series of systematic discussions with the a number of selected women from Madras. The first part of this section gives a short history of the Tamil film,  which is followed by a discussion of media theories. Sixteen films are individually, identifying the messages in the films. The responses of the women with whom the films were discussed are treated as indicators of the ideological linkages between the viewer and the content (both the image and the messages). By this process an attempt is made to ascertain the relevance of both the image and the messages to social reality. The argument that connects these sections is  the role the various ideologies presented and represented, play in the domination and control of women.

The research is concluded with a summary of the findings. In this research both secondary and primary sources are used. The primary sources in Tamil are given separately under references. Explanatory notes are given serially at the end of book along with the numbers indicated in the text."

From the Conclusion

"...Women's location in Tamil social formation is part of a power network... Gender ideology was upheld rather vigorously in religious texts. By reason of its hegemonic status and through the pedagogic process the ideology was sustained for long periods.

The long and elaborate definition of chastity, which incorporated the rituals of widow penance and sati, had both a mental state and a physical requirement-mental purity and physical purity. The ideology behind sati, prohibition of widow remarriage and divorce is the same ideology of purity based on controlling the sexuality of women (sati was chastity of the second order and widow penance was chastity of the third order.

The contemporary situation in Tamil Nadu, though it has done away with sati, both legally and socially ... has given forceful legitimisation to widow penance both in its social reality and in its ideological reproduction in the films. This reveals that the semiotic world plays a role in reinforcing signification or gender identities.

Widow remarriage is still abhorred by various groups of women as an unchaste and impure form of existence. Women who have divorced their husbands and widows who have remarried are still few in number and are considered exceptions to the rule. These reinforcements are in fact as argued by Gramsci, the result of a process of consent effected both covertly and overtly. The reproduction of the power relations of the gender regime are not necessarily through violence.

The concept of chastity seemed to have influenced the lives of women in the films to decide against remarriage, divorce and separation. The symbol of tali was abundantly used in the films to explain and demonstrate the concept. The idea of restraint that guided and determined the lives of women in the earlier epochs as evidenced by the references in the literature, seemed to have affected the decisions of the contemporary women.

The same was given fresh ideological legitimisation in the themes and presentation of films. The ritual of nonpu is patriarchy ritualised in another form through the concept of paty bhakti. The sexuality of women which is directed, controlled and utilized by men was further restricted to the private domain, to the physical limits of the household and an ideology of family/home which was always glorified.

 The ideological implications of such a process which started centuries ago were constantly reimposed. The linguistic connotations of words such as manai  (மனை) and manaivi (மனைவி) (one who belongs to the home/house) and concepts such as manaimatchti (மனைமாட்சி) (the elaborate discussions of the decorum befitting a good wife in Tirukural) bear witness to the development of otherness for the women in the public domain.

My research which involved interviewing women about contemporary Tamil films reinforces the fact that patriarchal ideology is prevalent. Both in the dialogue with the women and in the solitary experiences of watching the films, the family/ home and its privacy was posed as the opposite of the public domain for women. The sanctity of the home, its ritualised status and the linguistic elevation of it to a concept equal to temple has led to a social division. There has evolved a separation between home and the productive sites such as farms and fields, and now factories and offices. The removal of the production sites to areas outside the homes has led to this process and the development of a corresponding ideology in this instance.

Women working at home or engaged in household labour saw themselves merely as housewives. In their perceptions, work and labour meant service to the members of the household. There was evidence of another phenomenon, when women, who were working in farms and factories managing labour and doing accounts, told me that they are not working. Farm and factory management in the hands of housewives is conceptualised as an extension of family/ household labour. As a result of a deeply entrenched patriarchal consciousness, even where women are handling a double burden of domestic labour and management of factories and farm, the vocabulary of work has been appropriated patriarchally and associated with men's remunerative capacity...

.... Gender ideology is to a great extent part of the more general ideology in the Tamil social formation and it does contribute to determine the daily lives of women across caste and class... The gender ideology prevalent in this Society is reflected abundantly in the films, but they are presented more as a legitimising process than as a social reality. They are over-emphasised in a melodramatic manner often sacrificing reality of contexts and often neglecting the totality of social reality.

Contemporary Tamil films act as a system of representation. This system is part of a gender ideology with various modes of operation. This ideology idealizes or distorts women. One strategy employed in the films is the process of stereotyping women. A stereotype is a one-sided description which results from the collapsing of complex differences into a simple cardboard cutout. Different characteristics merge or condense into one. This simplification is then attached to a subject or place. Its characteristics become the signs, the "evidence", by which the subject is known. They define its being its essence. Women in the films become collapsed into a universal woman who represents the essence of  women. The stereotype is then split into two halves, its good or bad sides which results in a stereotypical dualism of gender..."



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