Ecclesia of Women in Asia

Forum of Asian Catholic Women Theologians

Patriarchy and Bodily Constructions of Femininity (by Metti, A.)

The body of woman is the site where culture manufactures the blockade of woman.
- Valerie Export


A Tamil myth,[1] illustrates beautifully the way the system of patriarchy[2] has taken control of the female body and continues to have its grip on the same. The myth, which is known as the myth of Karaikalammaiyar (the lady of Karaikal[3]) goes like this:

One day the merchant Paramatattan was given two mangoes as a gift. He handed them over to his wife Punithavathiyar, and she gave one of them to a devotee of Siva who begged for food. She served the other to her husband during his meal, and he so liked the taste that he asked for the other. In desperation the wife appealed to Siva, and another mango appeared in her hand. When she served this to her husband, he immediately detected the divine flavour and asked his wife where she had obtained the fruit. She told him the truth. ‘If that is how it happened, bring me yet another fruit,” he said. She went away and prayed to the god, “If you do not give me another, my word will appear false,” and immediately another mango appeared. She gave this to her husband, and as he took it, it vanished.

In terror at this demonstration of sacred power, Paramatattan fled across the seas to another land. Eventually he returned to dwell in the Pandiya land. He took another wife and fathered a daughter, whom he named after his first wife. However, when relatives of his, came to know his whereabouts, they brought Punithavathiyar to him in a litter. He fell at her feet and worshipped her. At this the relatives were shocked and ashamed. “Is it right for you to worship your own wife?” they cried. “She is not a woman but a goddess,” answered the merchant. And he said “As soon as I discovered this, I left her; now I have married a real woman and called my daughter by the name of my former wife, our family deity.”

Hearing these words, Punithavathiyar prayed to Siva, “Until now I have carried this bag of flesh for the sake of my husband. If this is how he feels, I no longer need this body of mine which is not useful for him; give me the form of a demon (pey vadivu) who worships your feet.” Siva dried up her flesh, and she became a demoness roaming the forest of Alankadu.[4]

This famous myth, which is prevalent among Tamil women, underscores few important feminine ideologies disseminated and advocated by patriarchy. They are as follows:

Myth # 1: The body of the wife is the property of the husband. The husband alone has the right over the wife of the body. He can use it at any time or dispose it off when he does not feel having it. This right over the woman’s body, a man gets through the institution of marriage. Shashi Deshpande’s novel of That Long Silence skilfully brings out the reality of a married woman’s situation and that is very much applicable to this woman in the myth also. She says, “Marriage for the wife meant reduction to the status of "chattel property" for transferral from one patriarch (the father) to another patriarch (the husband).”[5] It implies that from father-male to husband- male is privileged to hold power to rule and woman to be ruled or in other words one rules over the other, one is made to feel superior over the other.

While speaking about marriage E.V. Periyar said: “In the institution of marriage, woman’s body has been colonized by men for their two important needs viz., for food and sex.” Selvi[6] an activist frankly expresses, “ I am told that women are given two places in this society. One is kitchen and the other is bedroom. It is here we are expected to be generous. But even here our body has no space of our own. With regard to food it is most of the time the man’s taste is taken into consideration. And with regard to sex, it is always man decides. And our body is not in our control but in the control of man.”

Thus a woman is considered not as a fully human person but as man’s property, which can be treated like his tools or furniture. So man can do with her what ever he wants. Women have no say in several matters including sex within marriage, family planning measures, number of children etc. Domestic violence against women is considered natural and a private affair of the family, so that men can continue to maintain control and authority over women’s body. But for most people marriage is not a union of souls; it is a union of two bodies in which one does and the other is done to. Marriage is the name given by society to the sex exploits of man, which he carries out on the woman’s body with absolute impunity. Marriage is a license the society confers upon man to do whatever he likes with his woman to satisfy his sexual cravings.[7]

Myth # 2: When a husband does not use the wife of the body it should be diminished into nothing. Karaikkalammaiyar who is known for her beauty and charm takes up an ugly form, just because the husband does not use it. And if the husband does not enjoy it, then there is no use of its existence. Hence it has to be destroyed. I suppose, the situation of sati and widowhood must be aftermath of this kind of myth. When the devoted wife sacrifices her body and its beauty and takes upon herself a pey vadivu and that is considered as saintliness/ holiness. And she becomes a model for all who live especially for all women.

Myth # 3: A woman’s body is a sacrificing body. In the above myth karaikalammaiyar lives not for herself but for her husband. This brings to light the important role that women are expected to do in this society. They are always taught to live for anyone and everyone but themselves. They “live for” their husbands, children, parents, siblings, friends and communities, etc. since emphasis or stress is on the “other”, the self gets lost in the process to the point that woman sacrifices herself, her happiness, her welfare and her very well-being, specifically her bodily well-being. This displacement of the self naturally results not only to the neglect but also to the abuse of the body since this “conditioned” disposition or attitude is usually couched or expressed in the language of “care and sacrifice.” Care in Indian societies is supposed to be manifested physically- e.g. preparing the husband’s clothes and dressing up the children for school while cooking breakfast, allowing the husband to “use” her body for sex even when she is tired or doesn’t feel like doing it, dieting to the point of anorexia or bulimia to be sexy according to the society’s norms of beauty.[8] Thus women’s bodies are indeed sacrificed on a daily basis at the altar of work whether for productive or reproductive work or, as often the case, for both kinds of work.[9] It is a way of life that is not actually body affirming and could even be body-negating.

Myth # 4: A woman’s Body is an inferior and Weak Body. In the myth when merchant Paramatattan realised that his wife was more powerful than him spiritually he considers her a threat and so he runs away from her and gets married to a ‘real woman.’ Now who is this ‘real woman’ according to him? A woman who is inferior in all the ways possible viz., physically, intellectually and spiritually than the man. It is better that women hide their strengths and remain submissive than to show their capacities and been pushed out of the house. One of the tricks of patriarchy is to keep women in an inferior position. “The repercussions of this lowly status has tremendous consequences for women,” says Tellis Nayak, and she continues saying, “they (women) may be the bread winners, yet their work is valued less than that of men. They work harder than the men.”[10] Besides Man’s body is considered biologically strong, capable and experienced while woman’s body is treated as sexually and emotionally fragile and weak. They are inferior to men. The society has adopted thought and behaviour patterns to conform these myths created by patriarchy. Many customs and traditions have evolved accordingly.

The greatest demon that has destroyed and broken woman’s body into pieces is Patriarchy. For Patriarchy has killed the womanness of a woman in the name of being feminine. The system of patriarchy and androcentrism is so engrained in the Indian cultures that women have co-opted these ideologies of patriarchy as part of life. Patriarchy through gender stereotypes reinforces and reproduces through various social structures such as through media, generally accepted employment practices, religious customs and through the norms and expectations regarding women's roles like motherhood, wifehood, etc. Besides in the arena of body patriarchy has divided it into male/female, soul/body, pure/impure, superior/inferior, strong/ weak, etc and considers always the former as preferable than the latter. Woman is always identified in terms of her body and myths regarding female body continue to endorse and virtually enforces women's embodiment as the weaker sex in both physical and intellectual realms.

Andrea Dworkin rightly observes:

Under patriarchy, no woman is safe to live her life, or to love or to mother children. Under patriarchy, every woman is a victim, past, present and future. Under patriarchy, every woman's daughter is a victim, past, present and future. Under patriarchy, every woman's son is her potential betrayer and also the inevitable rapist or exploiter of another woman.[11]

While a multitude of women from the mid- to late-nineteenth century onwards brought suffrage to the forefront of society as a means to equal rights, many others involved in the women's movement realized that political enfranchisement alone would not bring women to an equitable socio-economic footing with men. Key impediments to women's equality are patriarchal ideologies and pronouncements which encumber women's bodies, adversely affecting their physical and mental health, private and public space, bodily movements, education and occupation, past, present and future, simultaneously relegating woman’ body to an inferior status. In the context of Patriarchy woman’s body is being massacred, annihilated and killed. An unending saga of human killings haunts our women irrespective of social and cultural barriers.

Although gender related issues receive attention these days, they have not brought change in the perceptions of woman’ body. Thousands and thousands of women suffer because of their bodies for various reasons. “The temple of God”(1Cor 6:19) has been belittled, exploited, and abused for a long time. Infanticide, foeticide, rape, molestation, kidnapping, abduction, eve-teasing, dowry death, dowry harassment, witch hunting, genital mutilation, sati, wife-battering, pornography, sex-trafficking, repeated pregnancies, beauty pageants, etc all speak out clearly one message that patriarchy continues to have its hold on woman’s body.

The journey of feminism had been one of setting the womenfolk free from their oppressive situations. I do not intend to conclude this paper with suggestions and ideas that might remain within this paper itself rather I invite you to enter into discussion with the following questions so that we as feminists could contribute concretely in a given situation.

Similar types of myths are found in our locality too and they are subtly and powerfully operative in the minds of the society, church and in women particular.

Let us identify those myths that constrain woman’s body.

What are the ways and means for women to decode these myths in order to reclaim their body?

How can we as feminist theologians involve ourselves in the process of deconstruction of patriarchal ideologies? In the church? In the society?

(Pl. Note: The author at the Indian Women Theologians Forum (IWTF) presented this paper in April 2005.)

[1] Generally, myths play a significant role in every culture and religious tradition. They have become an integral part of the human history and human spirit and will no longer regard them as immature episodes or as aberrations from an exemplary history of humankind. Human beings for many reasons have created myths and systems of myths over thousands of years. According to Mircea Eliade, “A myth is an expression of the sacred in words: it reports realities and events from the origin of the world that remains valid for the basis and purpose of all there is. Consequently, a myth functions as a model for human activity, society, wisdom, and knowledge.”

[2] Patriarchy is defined by Letty M. Russel as the “rule of the father.” It refers to systems of legal, social, economic, and political relations that validate and enforce the sovereignty of male heads of families over dependent persons in the household.” For further detail refer Letty M Russell & J. Shannon Clarkson eds. Dictionary of Feminist Theologies (Mowbray: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 205.

[3] Karaikal is a place in Tamil Nadu close to Pondicherry.

[4] In Personal Conversation with Janakiammal from Dindigul, Tamil Nadu.

[5] Jasbir Jain Gendered Realities, Human Spaces (Jaipur and New Delhi: Rawat Publications, 2003), 80.

[6] In a Personal Conversation with Selvi at her home in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. She is an activist in AIDWA.

[7] R. P. Sharma, Woman In Hindu Literature (New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 1995), 39.

[8] Gemma Tulud Cruz, “Our Bodies, Ourselves: Towards an Embodied Spirituality for Women,” In God’s Image 22 (June 2003): 3.

[9] Cruz, 2003, 3.

[10] Jessie B. Tellis Nayak, Indian womanhood -Then and Now, Indore: Satprakashan sanchar kendra, 1983, 8.

[11] Andrea Dworkin, Liberty (New York: Free Press Paper backs, 1987), 58.

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